By John Hanlon
“You have to motivate yourself with challenges. That’s how you know you’re still alive,” Jerry Seinfeld once said. If you support that sentiment, the new film American Underdog could be just what you’re looking for at the cineplex this Christmas.
Based on the book All Things Possible by Kurt Warner and Michael Silver, the new feature shows how much living Warner did long before he led his team to Super Bowl victory in 2000. It’s often forgotten how unlikely Warner’s rise was but this feature explores Warner’s hard-fought battle to prove himself in the NFL.
Zachary Levi stars as Kurt Warner, who dreamed big as a high school football player. Even when he was benched as a fifth year starter in college, he knew what he wanted and he knew the obvious path to get there. For a multitude of reasons, that path didn’t work for him.
American Underdog focuses on that path and shows the unique circumstances that led Warner on his path. Those unique circumstances included a relationship with a Christian single mother Brenda (Anna Paquin) and a friendship with her two children, the eldest of of whom is legally blind.
Much of the feature focuses on Warner’s obstacles along the way and the story takes its time in showing how events shaped him. There are times when the pacing feels slower than necessary. That bogs down the story early on but only leads to a greater payoff in the film’s final third.
Much of the film takes place off the football field as the Erwin Brothers, who previously helmed I Can Only Imagine and I Still Believe, focus on supporting characters and how important a role they played in Warner’s journey. Brenda isn’t just a supportive wife who stands on the sidelines; she’s a person who helps make him understand his own place in the world.
The Erwin Brothers also manage to tell a strong story here without overwhelming the story with its message about faith and Christianity. Faith is an important part of the film — and especially Brenda’s journey — but it’s never treated with superficiality and the feature allows for moments of doubt to seep through as the characters face harsh realities. Faith plays an important role in the lives of these characters — and their real-world counterparts – but it’s never seen as a cure-all that prevents them from facing tragedy.
Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin provide commendable performances in their lead role but the film’s greatest strength is its message about overcoming tough circumstances and the story’s appreciation for Warner’s long journey to the NFL. The screenplay by David Aaron Cohen, Jon Gunn, and Jon Erwin, seldom settles for obvious story beats (Warner’s NFL career is only included in the feature’s final third) but does sometimes settle for simplistic lines of dialogue.
Its message and its depiction of its honest depiction of the tough times Warner and his family faced along the way really make American Underdog stand out as a testament to overcoming adversity and beating the odds. As the character notes at the film’s beginning, “By all accounts, my dream—my story—is impossible. That’s just the kind of story this is.”