REVIEW: ‘American Underdog’ let down by overstuffed story, weak script

Greatest Show this is not.

“American Underdog” tells the story of Kurt Warner. A man who, despite many setbacks, managed to earn a roster spot on a National Football League team, the St. Louis (now Los Angeles) Rams, and lead them to a Super Bowl championship.

Warner is portrayed by Zachary Levi, and the film follows how he played at the University of Northern Iowa, met his wife Brenda (Anna Paquin) and worked to make an NFL roster, mainly by building highlights in the Arena Football League.

There are two issues in “American Underdog” that really  prevent it from being one of the great sports dramas. One of the issues is how much of Warner’s life was included and the other is the script letting the actors down.

Regarding the former, the film is simply trying to capture too much of Warner’s story. Not that his whole journey isn’t important, but some periods of his life were definitely more compelling thematically than others.

The most glaring example of this is how much time the film spends with Warner during his college days. Scenes of Warner at UNI don’t really serve that much of a purpose in the film, other than showing how his college coach was hard on him and a meet cute with Brenda.

Warner’s story is indeed an inspiring one, he went from working at a grocery store to being an NFL star. The fact is, the film could have easily skipped his college days and started with him working at the grocery store in Iowa.

Had that been the case, more time could have been spent detailing his time in the AFL, which is basically a minor league, and especially his Super Bowl run in 1999. The latter feels especially left out.

There is a bit of bias in this review regarding that Super Bowl run, as the championship game that season is one of my personal favorites. Yet the game, Super Bowl 34, is hardly shown, despite having one of the most dramatic endings in league history.

American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story
Courtesy Kingdom Story Company and Lionsgate Films.

The story structure could’ve been largely forgiven, though, had the script been stronger. Unfortunately, it’s a major letdown.

Nearly all of the dialogue featured in “Underdog” feels artificial and overly theatrical. Everyone talks in what seems like platitudes and rousing speeches, rather than genuine conversations.

Capturing the genuine human emotions and expressions associated with sports can be so powerful. It’s why a movie like 2010’s drama “The Fighter” about a real boxing champion worked so much better.

There are some good moments featured in “American Underdog” that are in fact heartwarming. Additionally Levi and Paquin do try their best with the material. But ultimately, things still fall short.

What doesn’t hurt the movie is the fact that it is produced by a Christian film company. Religious themes are present, but it’s more about how important faith is to Warner, for example showing him praying after a family emergency, rather than being preachy.

Where the film earns most of its points is in the football scenes. They’re fun to watch, especially toward the end where Warner is slinging the ball to his Greatest Show on Turf offensive teammates, Tory Holt, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce.

While the sports moments do in fact satisfy, though, “American Underdog” has too much working against it for it to become a genre classic. It’s mostly watchable just for fans of the game, especially those who followed Warner’s career from St. Louis to Arizona. 2.25 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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