The life and times of Kurt Warner, the retired NFL quarterback, is already known to most football fans. Warner is considered the NFL’s greatest undrafted player, and he is the only undrafted player to be named NFL Most Valuable Player and Super Bowl MVP. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017, and is the only player inducted into both the NFL Hall of Fame and the Arena Football Hall of Fame. However, his incredible career was hard won—it’s nothing short of miraculous.
“American Underdog” tells his story with a minimum of fuss and Christian emphasis, although the filmmaking brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin are strongly faith-based directors who tend to wear that element on their sleeves. It debuts Christmas Day 2021, but it’s already at 89 percent critics, 97 percent audience on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s an easy movie to like. A lot.
It’s not a flashy movie, it’s not particularly aesthetic, and it’s a little low-key for a football movie. The normally goofy Zachary Levi of “Shazam” fame, while having some physical similarities to the real Kurt Warner, wasn’t maybe the most charismatic choice for a leading man.
But it matters not. Warner’s story stands on its own as a towering example of the American dream, as it’s classically framed: If you never give up on your dreams, no matter how devastating the setbacks, and continue to put in the work in order to be ready when you get your shot, and if you put your faith in God, then dreams come true. If you’re planning on seeing a movie Christmas Day, this is certainly one that will pay dividends in the escalation-of-faith department.
The movie has a straightforward narrative told in chronological order, with a few flashback scenes of Kurt as a football-obsessed young boy (Beau Hart). Approximately the first third of the movie is about Kurt’s college years at the University of Northern Iowa and his first few years post-graduation.
Shortly after graduating college, Kurt’s NFL dreams appear to be on track after he’s recruited by the Green Bay Packers. He suffers his first major setback when he demonstrates a lack of urgency; he doesn’t have the Packer playbook memorized like all the other quarterback hopefuls. He thought he was a sure thing and would learn on the job. This naïve understanding of the NFL’s level of ambition and intensity gets Kurt cut after two days.
This life-altering mega-rejection leads to years of being down-and-out for Kurt. He’s plagued by financial problems, unemployment, and temporary homelessness. However, he sucks it up in classic American bootstrap style and takes a job as a shelf stocker at a grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where, much like Frances McDormand’s character in “Nomadland,” he has to face the ignominy of shoppers being embarrassed at how low he’s fallen from his former college football-star status. Seeing Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino’s happy face on a Wheaties box rubs salt in Warner’s wounds.
One of the mainstays of “American Underdog” is Kurt’s courtship and marriage. Kurt apparently wasn’t particularly smooth with the ladies. At a country music bar, he’s instantly smitten with a woman who clearly loves line dancing. Kurt can’t dance; he gets his teammate to teach him how, muscles his way in on the lady’s dance partner next time he sees her out on the floor, and introduces himself.
She plays exceedingly hard to get, but as they slowly get to know each other, it becomes apparent how different their lives are. Kurt’s father abandoned the family, and his mother, Sue Warner (Cindy Hogan), raised Kurt and his brother as a financially struggling single mom. As Kurt relates, “Football was the most important thing my dad taught me before he left.”
The future Brenda Warner (Anna Paquin), a former U.S. Marine, tells Kurt that she hates sports and is divorced with two kids, one of whom has special needs. “If I never see you again, I’ll totally understand,” she says. Brenda’s parents have been happily married for decades, and she is living with them because she’s unemployed. Brenda figured all this info would scare Kurt off.
But no. Kurt asks the bartender for her address and walks many, many miles to her front door with a rose to proffer, since he had no car at the time. Brenda doesn’t want to let him in, but her 7-year-old blind son, Zack (Hayden Zaller, legally blind in real life, is adorable), does when she’s not looking, and it’s immediately male-bonding city.
Zack relates that his transistor radio doesn’t work anymore. Kurt does an inspection, adds a battery and, voilà—Kurt and Zack chill like bros, on the bathroom floor to listen to the radio. Turns out, Zack’s Marine dad, named Brad, cheated on Brenda when she was pregnant, and then, when Zack was four months old, dropped him on his head in the bathtub. When Zack was rushed to the hospital with a swollen head, Brad didn’t tell anyone the reason, and Zack lost most of his eyesight because of the brain damage. Kurt’s not intimidated by any of this.
So Brenda finally agrees to a date. Kurt’s got wheels and the kids go, too. They’re just hanging out at a lake and talking while the kids sleep in the back of the truck. This is the beginning of Kurt and Brenda being each other’s lifeline during the lowest respective points in their lives. It’s not glossy and shiny. It’s all-American. It’s the good stuff.
Eventually, Brenda invites Kurt to live with her and her parents because Kurt has nowhere else to live. At one point they’re so financially broke that they run out of gas, with the kids in the back of the car, on a deserted road—in a snowstorm. Kurt’s looking at a five-mile walk in freezing weather all the way back to the nearest gas station for $4 and change worth of gas, and another five-mile return trip, hoping that Brenda and the kids don’t freeze to death, not to mention himself. Brenda’s dad eventually asks him why he’s taking so long to pop the question, and Kurt says that he doesn’t feel worthy yet.
All of the above prompts Kurt to do something that he swore he’d never do: sign with owner Jim Foster (Bruce McGill) of the American Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers arena football team. Kurt believes that arena football is for guys who are “circling the drain,” but curiously doesn’t see himself as being in that particular boat. Luckily for him, his college best buddy Marshall Faulk (O.J. Keith Simpson) is now also a Barnstormers teammate. It’s déjà vu all over again as Kurt now becomes an arena football star quarterback. And then the Los Angeles Rams come a-calling.
There were probably better physical resemblance casting choices, but Zachary Levi sells the role well and pulls off the football scenes passably. There are plenty of rousing football scenes, but “American Underdog” is really about Kurt and Brenda and a prime example of the great woman standing behind every great man.
Dennis Quaid played the Major League Baseball version of Kurt Warner’s story in 2002’s “The Rookie.” And here he plays Rams head coach Dick Vermeil, who, having had a similar late-bloomer history to Warner’s, believed in Kurt against all odds and gave him a shot.
“American Underdog” is the inspiring story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things with a no-quit attitude, a powerful marriage support system, a belief in God, as well as a deep understanding that life’s tough tests are there for us to build character, to be true to our dreams, and to learn compassion, which in turn strengthens the ability to endure until our ship comes in.
Lionsgate will release “American Underdog” in U.S. cinemas on Dec. 25, 2021.
Directors: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin
Starring: Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Dennis Quaid, Bruce McGill, Adam Baldwin, Chance Kelly, Hayden Zaller
Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Release Date: Dec. 25, 2021
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars