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- American football quarterback
- American football player
The beauty of Kurt Warner’s story is that it’s so unlikely it’s nearly impervious to clichés.
The strength of “American Underdog,” Andrew and Jon Erwin’s film about Warner’s life in football and with his wife, Brenda, is that they realize this and let the story speak for itself.
That works, for the most part, because to succeed football movies have to avoid clichés the way quarterbacks avoid blitzing linebackers; it’s impossible to do so completely, but they do their best to stay out of harm’s way.
“American Underdog” definitely delivers a feel-good, never-give-up message — a staple of not just sports movies but many movies in general. A happy ending isn’t essential, as anyone who has cried their way through “Brian’s Song” can tell you. The journey is where the inspiration lies.
'American Underdog' doesn't rely on clichés. Mostly
But with few exceptions, “American Underdog” doesn’t fall into the sentimental trap that its message sometimes sets.
Part of that has to do with Zachary Levi’s portrayal of Warner and, especially, Anna Paquin’s performance as Warner’s wife, Brenda. And part of it is that their relationship, also unlikely, is as much a part of the film as on-field failure and redemption.
Warner famously failed in his first attempt at playing professional football and wound up stocking groceries in an Iowa supermarket. After stints in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe (neither of which is still in business), he caught on with the then-St. Louis Rams. When starter Trent Green injured his knee in a preseason game, Warner became the surprise starter.
He went on to win a Super Bowl with the Rams, win two NFL MVP awards and later took the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
(The film ends with Warner’s Super Bowl win with the Rams.)
Warner was born in Iowa and played at the University of Northern Iowa. When the film begins, he’s riding the bench, more confident in his own abilities than the coach is in him. But a breakout senior year leads to the possibility that he might be drafted by an NFL team.
Meanwhile, Warner, in a rare break from football, meets Brenda in a country-western bar. A fanatic for preparation, he takes line-dancing lessons to impress her. It works, sort of — he’s not Fred Astaire, but he’s fine. But Brenda, while obviously attracted to Warner, seems hesitant.
In an unannounced visit to her home, Warner finds out why: Brenda is a divorced ex-Marine with two children, including a son, Zack (Hayden Zaller), with special needs.
Brenda doesn’t think it can work. But Warner is used to hearing this, and persists. The Green Bay Packers invite him to training camp and cut him. But he refuses to give up on football, though it seems the sport has given up on him. Warner takes a job stocking groceries when Jim Foster (Bruce McGill), the owner of the Iowa Barnstormers of the decidedly minor-league Arena Football League, invites Warner to play for the team.
Warner is offended, but with money somewhere between tight and nonexistent, he relents, and proceeds to wow the league.
When Warner joins the Rams, his story changes. So does the film
This part of the story isn’t told as a preordained miracle. It’s tough — Kurt and Brenda struggle, financially and with their relationship. Bad luck and tragedy seem to follow them. But eventually, Warner gets a shot with the St. Louis Rams, and their luck changes.
So does the film, to some extent. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz (Chance Kelly) has invented a new type of offense meant to be run by quarterback Trent Green. To the extent that he pays any attention to Warner, it’s to ridicule him. But Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid), the head coach, likes Warner’s perseverance.
The way the story plays out is classic: Green is injured in preseason, Warner takes over at quarterback despite Martz’s misgivings and the Rams become an offensive juggernaut, “The Greatest Show on Turf,” winning the Super Bowl. Warner is named MVP of the league and the Super Bowl.
It sounds like too much, too Hollywood. The Erwins don’t overplay their hand, however, with the exception of the portrayal of Martz. When Warner finally makes his first NFL start, Martz tells him he was tough on him to bring out the best in him, to make him believe in himself, whatever. This is the one time the film feels false, because up to this point, Martz doesn’t seem to be doing any such thing. He just seems like a jerk who doesn’t think Warner’s good enough.
Maybe it really happened that way. Maybe it didn’t. But it plays like a false note, the one time the Erwins dip into sports-movie cliché. The redemption here belongs to Kurt and Brenda, not Martz.
And they earned it.
'American Underdog' 3.5 stars
Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★
Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★
Directors: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin.
Cast: Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Dennis Quaid.
Rating: Rated PG for some language and thematic elements.
Note: In theaters Dec. 25.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'American Underdog' tells the Kurt Warner story, mostly cliché free