Dog’s Movie House: “American Underdog” An Uplifting Docudrama About The Rise Of Kurt Warner!

In “American Underdog” we see Kurt Warner (an excellent Zachary Levi) as a college quarterback in Iowa with a big dream of playing in the NFL. Yet throughout his journey Warner keeps hitting speedbumps that result in him working as a stock clerk at a grocery store in his home state of Iowa. He finally gets his chance in the Arena League where the fast nature of the game helps prepare him for the even faster nature of the NFL. His stats in the Arena League are enough to get him a tryout with the St. Louis Rams and, after a couple of more speed bumps and one horrendous season ending injury to starting quarterback Trent Green, Warner gets his chance and one of the great underdog stories in NFL history comes to fruition. Throughout his entire ordeal, Warner is supported by his faith and his rock-steady relationship with his tough and supportive wife Brenda (a scene-stealing Anna Paquin).

Now if this sounds like the plot to a Lifetime Movie, you’d be right, but like many films of this kind, the enjoyment is found in the journey rather than the destination. Yes, there is plenty of sentiment to go around but it’s grounded in the performances of the two leads and a real sense of honesty in the story. Kurt Warner, in real life, is one of the NFL’s good guys and he was a driving force behind this film and his commitment shows through and through. It also helps that the football sequences which combine the actors seamlessly with actual game footage are very compelling and well done.

The devil is in the details with “American Underdog.” The relationship between Kurt and Brenda is a thing of beauty, made all the more relatable because things aren’t perfect. This isn’t a fairy tale and they almost end their journey together on more than one occassion, but their bond always brings them back together. Another interesting aspect that I found especially moving is Kurt’s relationship with Brenda’s older son Zack (a wonderful Hayden Zaller) from her previous marriage. Legally blind from a childhood accident, Zack’s challenges bring out a protective side in Kurt and the two bond in a way that tightens Kurt’s relationship with Brenda.

The performances in “American Underdog” are what really make this film cook. Levi is light years away from his comedic portrayal in “Shazam” imbueing Warner with a relatable combination of earnestness and honesty without falling into cliche. He’s matched by Paquin as Brenda, a tough single mother who finds the courage to believe and love again thanks to the unwavering support and love of Kurt. Paquin, like Levi, mannages to find the honest emotion in her character without ever dissolving into cloying sentimentality. Their relationship is the beating heart of “American Underdog” and the film is better for it. Also good in smaller roles are Bruce McGill as Jim Foster, the owner of the Iowa Arena team that gives Kurt his first break, Adam Baldwin as Warner’s college coach who provides a novel, if painful method of insuring that Warner learns to stay in the pocket. Dennis Quaid makes an appearance as Coach Dick Vermeil, but the MVP of the Rams sequence is Chance Kelly as offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the architect of the “Greatest Show On Turf.” Kelly’s Martz is offensive in more ways than one and Kelly nails the humiliating emotional form of motivation that provides Kurt’s final test before making it to the big time. (In real life, the two became very close friends, especially after Martz took over as the Rams’ head coach.)

One more thing: much has been made of the religious aspect of “American Underdog.” I am not an overtly religious man and I’m not fond of using cinema as a pulpit for a religious agenda. I am pleased to say that “American Underdog” doesn’t do this at all. Yes, there are frequent mentions of faith and the presence of God in the lives of both Kurt and especially Brenda, but it all comes off as a natural extension of their personalities and the way in which their life experiences have shaped them. The film doesn’t preach to the audience: it simply lays out the Warners’ faith as an extension of their lives and personalities and the end result is an entertaining and complete portrait of the greatest undrafted player in NFL history. If you want an uplifting sports drama, you could do far worse than “American Underdog.” It’s a very entertaining and inspiring film. 4 Out Of 5 On Kendog’s Barkometer! So Sayeth The Kendog!

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