‘American Underdog’ thrives by focusing on the love story, not football

Lionsgate

Lionsgate

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Miracles take a village. No single person can attempt to do the impossible; few souls understood that more than Kurt Warner.

He was the guy who went from stocking shelves at a grocery store to winning the Super Bowl MVP award. But the good thing about “American Underdog,” the new film based on Warner’s rise to NFL stardom, is that it focuses on the love story with Brenda that helped bolster that Cinderella tale.

The St. Louis region knows all about the Warner’s generosity and their famous postgame smooches, but the movie shines a light on how they found and supported each other in the very beginning.

Adversity and Hardship

Played by Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin, Kurt and Brenda faced many adversities and hardships before he took over for the injured Trent Green in what turned out to be a storybook season back in 1999. If St. Louis Rams fans are coming in expecting a large chunk of the film to feature his years with that team, they will be disappointed. While the football scenes are aplenty and slickly filmed, the spectacular debut with the Rams is more of a climax here. So, stop worrying about whether or not Levi can throw a spiral, and just take this as an old school romance with some sports thrown in.

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Levi and Paquin fit well into their roles, which helps the movie considerably. If you mess up these two roles, “American Underdog” sinks. They share some chemistry, offering moviegoers a small peek at the life these two built out of misfortune and some luck. We learn to love them as people first before the national sports power couple they eventually became–just like Kurt learned to love Brenda’s family before marrying her.

Levi’s best scenes aren’t on a football field; they’re at home with Brenda’s (and eventually his) son, Zack. This is where the playing field shifts to more the actor’s natural strengths. There’s a gentleness to Levi’s giant here that balances out the life and sports hardships he faced.

A key scene involving the Warners’ car breaking down in the middle of a snow storm, with Kurt walking for miles to get gas and return, reaches an epic scale. But for the most part, Andrew and Jon Erwin’s film likes to take a small-scale approach to Warner’s story.

Supporting Cast

The supporting cast lends fine support. Dennis Quaid’s makeup is a little over the top, but his endearing performance should make Dick Vermeil proud, and cry most likely. Bruce McGill is great as the arena football owner who first gave Kurt a shot, paying him $100 per touchdown. Chance Kelly chews scenery as an ambitious Mike Martz, and it somehow works.

The filmmakers present the then-offensive coordinator up here as a villainous presence in Warner’s journey, so it heightens up the cinematic element. In most films, that would be problematic. Here, it fits in snugly with the already larger-than-life tale.

It’s not a perfect film. You will feel a couple moments start to slip into a Hallmark Channel play-action formula before jetting out of it during the next scene. The filmmakers are known for uplifting religious tales, so the fear was that non-religious audiences may be turned off by the film. But “American Underdog” never leans too hard into Warner’s religious beliefs, which grew very strong from the moment he met Brenda.

If there’s one thing that makes this movie tick, it’s Levi and Paquin. They make us believe in the couple on screen, bringing all the magic in their past back to life.

“American Underdog” is a winner.