One thing is quickly becoming apparent from watching movies in the theater with my girlfriend: if she stays awake throughout the entire runtime, it is a sign of a good movie. Now, I enjoyed Spider-Man: No Way Home more than she did, but I will chalk that one up to her not being as familiar as me with Marvel films. Even I wanted to sleep through West Side Story (2021), but such is my dedication to gutting it through everything I see. How else can I deliver as good of a review as I can to you? In my mad dash to get in as many new releases as possible during this holiday season, while also balancing all the other commitments of these days, we decided to go see American Underdog. I had my doubts as to her ability to keep her eyes open during it. Given that she is not much for sports, I predicted an early drift into dreamland. Imagine my surprise, then, when she not only remained vigilant the whole time, but she enjoyed it. How is that for a recommendation?
Of course, none of that introduction explains what American Underdog is about to any degree. For a football aficionado such as myself, Kurt Warner’s (Zachary Levi) story is a familiar one. Before there was the “Greatest Show on Turf” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a highly recruited but stubborn quarterback at Northern Iowa University. Do not worry if you have never heard of that school. It is kind of the point. As somebody who grew up watching others at his position excel like Joe Montana and Dan Marino, he felt a determination to follow in their extremely rare footsteps. Because of the obscurity of his school, he knew he had to do a bit of self-promotion. He also had to learn a new way of playing the position. His coach, Terry Allen (Adam Baldwin), could see the talent but also the stubbornness. In response, Coach Allen benches Kurt. Seeing his already slim chances of making it to the National Football League (NFL) slipping away, Kurt appeals to Coach Allen as to what the young quarterback needs to do in order to stay on the field. The result is a much more dedicated player who leads his team to many victories. Up to this point, pretty much the only thing Kurt thinks about is football. Yet, he is convinced by his friend and roommate, Mike Hudnutt (Se’Darius Blain), to go country line dancing at a local watering hole. It is there that Kurt meets Brenda Meoni (Anna Paquin), who is also there dancing. In order to impress her, he learns to dance, but getting to know her is to prove a bit more challenging than getting down a few steps. She is a former United States Marine, divorced, with two children, one of whom, Zack (Hayden Zaller), suffered brain damage that left him blind. Regardless, Kurt applies the same conviction in pursuing Brenda as he does between the lines, which is what eventually wins her over. As for his football career, though he has to endure the disappointment of not being drafted, he receives an invitation to try-out with the Green Bay Packers. He even buys a new green-colored car in his excitement. Unfortunately, he is cut from the team before he has a chance to show the coaches there what he can do. Seeing his fantasy of being a quarterback in the NFL dissolving, he goes back to Brenda to help her with her kids while she studies in Nursing School. Seeing the need for more money to survive, he takes a job working nights stocking shelves at the Hy-Vee grocery store. Not long into this employment, he is tracked down by the founder of the Arena Football League (AFL), Jim Foster (Bruce McGill). Coach Foster wants Kurt to play for the Iowa Barnstormers, but Kurt is not keen on playing for a league that he considers beneath his talents. What changes his mind is the continued struggles for him and Brenda. He also finds that he has to relearn the sport all over again. As he does this, though, he finds that his relationship with Brenda becomes more distant, she needing to keep an eye on her children. She feels like he is choosing football over her family, and wants to break up with him. They are brought back together when Brenda’s parents are killed in a tornado and Kurt comes to comfort her. They then get married, Kurt following through on a promise to do right by Brenda that he made to her father. After nearly winning the AFL championship, Kurt gets a call from the St. Louis Rams to be the backup to their current starting quarterback, Trent Green (Ben Kacsandi). This move is mainly supported by their head coach, Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid), but vehemently opposed by the Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz (Chance Kelly). Coach Vermeil sees the skills and leadership, while Coach Martz thinks Kurt is no more than a country bumpkin. When an injury takes out Trent Green for the rest of the season, they are forced to turn to Kurt. This forces Kurt and Coach Martz to come to terms, which they do, leading the Rams all the way to a victory in the Super Bowl. And the rest, as they say, is history.
American Underdog does slightly hit the plot squarely on the nose. You could almost get everything you need to know about it from the title. At the same time, that would not do this film justice. What it really is a testament to faith. There is a notion about having a relationship with God that those who have one have a perfect life, free from care or worry. What communication with God actually does is equip you to better handle the bad times. There are many great examples of this from today’s film. When Brenda’s parents die, she prays. Earlier, she avows that her relationship with God defines her. Only somebody like that can pray in the midst of tragedy. Yet, the biggest testament comes from Kurt. For much of the movie, he feels like God gave him this talent and determination, and yet seems to close every pathway to the goal he so earnestly craves. With football, he thinks that it gives him the opportunity to prove himself. It is Brenda that points out to him that football will never show that he is good, at least not in the eyes of God. It is an incredible gift that Kurt has, and it was only when he realized that gift for what it is and not the end all, be all, that he realizes any success. Going along with this Christian theme is the one who teaches Kurt true humility, Zack. He has a desire to drive trucks, but it is one born of child-like wonder, not wanting to show-off. The former of those is how God sees us.
I recommend American Underdog not only for its Christian themes, but also because it is a solid flick. The real-life Kurt Warner’s story is one worth knowing about, and it is good that it is being shown in a cinematic format. To risk a clichéd phrase, miracles are real. Please know that I am referring more here to the ones that Kurt experienced than my girlfriend staying awake for this whole film. Either way, the rewards are real, too.