‘American Underdog’ shows heroes often wear helmets

Rick's Reviews

Zahary Levi stars in the feature film based on the life of NFL legend Kurt Warner. (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — If you have seen one sports movie, you have pretty much seen them all. The sport may change but whether it is basketball, baseball, boxing or hockey, the film is going to feature a central figure who must defy all odds to overcome a major challenge.

In the case of “American Underdog,” the sport is football – professional football to be exact – and it is Kurt Warner (played by Zachary Levi) who must overcome personal, professional and financial obstacles to make his dream come true. The film tells the true story of the former NFL quarterback who went from stocking shelves in a grocery store to being a two-time NFL MVP, Super Bowl champion and Hall of Fame quarterback.

It’s not the accomplishments but the journey that makes Warner’s story so uplifting. Warner failed a tryout with the Green Bay Packers after college. He never gave up his dream despite the fact he and his family faced serious financial troubles. That even meant swallowing his pride to play in the circus-like version of professional football known as Arena Football.

The film from directors Jon and Andrew Erwin is a very predictable sports biopic. The central figure has to overcome hardship to accomplish a major goal. In the case of Warner, his relentless drive to make it to the National Football League is driven on pure faith in himself and the faith his wife, Brenda (Anna Paquin), has in him.

The Erwin brothers fill the screen with the kind of rah-rah moments that are so prevalent in this genre. The staging of all levels of football – from college to the pros – looks real enough to sell the story.

What elevates the production is the cast. Levi made a big super hero splash starring in “Shazam” but he is a much bigger hero playing Warner. Levi scores a touchdown showing how a person who holds on to their faith and commitment can do heroic things.

Levi’s casting could have been problematic as he has always brought light levity to his roles. There are upbeat moments for him to play but Levi never slips into his familiar comic tones.

Because the film stresses heavily the importance of family, Paquin’s performance as Warner’s wife is equally important. There seems to be no setback for them to face as long as they do it together.

The film also features two strong supporting roles played by Bruce McGill and Dennis Quaid. McGill plays the energetic founder of Arena football while Quaid takes on the role of NFL coaching legend Dick Vermeil.

It is the most lively and fun performance from McGill since his days on the original “MacGyver” TV series. He provides the spark that rekindles the flame of hope in Warner when things are their darkest.

And, Quaid comes across like a kindly uncle who looks past the fact Warner is nine years past the time he should have started his NFL career to see the great potential. Quaid’s performance provides the last bit of fuel to turn Warner’s flame of faith into an inferno.

The script is based on the book Warner and Michael Silver wrote, All Things Possible. The cynical would suggest that accounts for the heroic version of Warner’s life. The truth is that Warner’s true story is really the stuff of sports legends. If it had been written as a piece of fiction, it would have been rejected as being too impossible.

Christmas is one of the busiest days at movie theaters. The trick is to find a movie that will entertain the young and old. “American Underdog” is not only family friendly, it is the most inspirational sports story since Rocky Balboa put on a pair of boxing gloves.

It doesn’t draw up a new game plan for making a sports movie. But, the execution of the familiar playbook makes this a winner and a very positive selection for those in need of a movie break from the holidays.

Movie review: 3 stars

Cast:  Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Bruce McGill, Dennis Quaid, Adam Baldwin.

Directors: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin

Rated: PG for some language, thematic elements

Running time: 132 minutes.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.