January 21, 2022


American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story Gives Lesson in Perseverance

By: Justin Tucker

Many successful people will tell you about the importance of perseverance. Everyone knows Thomas Edison’s famous quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He persevered through all of his famous perspiration, and we now have the phonograph, the light bulb, and cinema.

Other successful individuals have overcome many famous failures before achieving triumph, but none of their stories are quite as perfect for the big screen as the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. His incredible rise to pro-football stardom gets the Hollywood treatment in the crowd-pleasing American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story. Directed by Andrew and John Erwin, the film is a testament to number 13’s dedication and tenacity, which took him from stocking shelves for the minimum wage to gridiron glory in just a few short years.

Zachary Levi (Shazam!) stars as Warner. When the film begins, he is a fifth-year senior playing for the Northern Iowa Panthers, hoping to make it into the NFL draft. He haunts the local honky-tonk, hoping to win the affections of Brenda (Anna Paquin, X-Men), a single mother and former Marine who repeatedly assures him a relationship between them won’t  work. Kurt persists, showing his intentions are sincere, and wins over Brenda and her two children, Jesse (Cora Kate Wilkerson) and Zack (Hayden Zaller), who is disabled. They decide to stick by each other, relying on each other’s support as they pursue their chosen career paths, with Warner becoming a father to her children. 

As Warner has difficulties trying to secure a spot in the NFL, his relationship also falls on hard times. They struggle with finances, career setbacks, and grief, just as any committed couple would. Kurt’s luck begins to change when he is by approached by Arena League Football founder Jim Foster (Bruce McGill, National Lampoon’s Animal House), who is fond of Warner’s grit. Warner accepts Foster’s opportunity to play for the Iowa Barnstormers, and the couple marries as their dedication to each other remains resilient in the face of tribulation.

Warner gets another shot at NFL grandeur when he is approached by the St. Louis Rams. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz (Chance Kelly, TV’s “Billions”) has little faith in Warner’s ability and is tough on Warner on the practice field. Head coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid, Any Given Sunday) has faith in the quarterback and puts him as second string to starter Trent Green for the 1999 season. When Green goes down pre-season, Warner finds himself thrust into the place he dreamed to be his whole life. His perseverance got him to this point. And it’s showtime. 

There is nothing groundbreaking in terms of narrative with American Underdog. It follows the formula, and follows it well, but transcends being formulaic. Some football fans may be surprised that the film devotes the time it does to Kurt and Brenda’s relationship, but to understand Warner’s steadfastness in football is to understand his steadfastness to his family. Audiences are delivered a satisfying football movie that is also a layered family drama.

The cast also does an excellent job of lifting the film higher than other football stories. Levi is charming as number 13 and gives audiences a reason to care about Warner’s journey to the NFL. He has great chemistry with his co-star Paquin, who steals the show as Brenda in one of the best performances of 2021. She is a resolute mother, toughened by headache and hardship who finds sweet, strong Kurt to be an anchor and beacon in her life. Kelly’s turn as the merciless Martz also deserves praise, giving his character a harsh callousness that doubts that the farm boy quarterback from Iowa can make waves in the NFL. If this film is to have a villain, Martz is it thanks to Kelly.

The Erwin Brothers, who have found success in Christian audiences with such films as I Can Only Imagine and Woodlawn, are bound to expand their horizons with American Underdog. There is a market for family films that tell inspiring stories, and the Erwin Brothers fill that niche. Their work on American Underdog shows audiences how perseverance is a universal attribute of successful people.

As another sports superstar once put it, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t make.”