It's not very often that we get a quality faith-based flick released on Christmas Day, but you can't ask for much more under the cinematic Christmas Tree than American Underdog, an inspirational feel-good winner of a flick starring Shazam's Zachary Levi as former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner.
American Underdog has a story that is practically begging for a Christmas season release. It's a film with a passionate "believe in yourself" sentimentality and a film that tugs at those heartstrings unabashedly and with wholehearted enthusiasm.
I've been with the Erwin Brothers since the beginning, a 2006 documentary called The Cross and the Towers, and I've watched them grow into filmmakers who celebrate and elevate their faith through their cinema. With American Underdog, brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin serve up a warm hug of a film that grounds itself in faith, rejoices with the human spirit, and captures everything we love about movies.
It helps that Jon and Andrew Erwin have grown into such dependable filmmakers, that they can attract a cast with the likes of Zachary Levi along with Academy Award winner Anna Paquin and Independent Spirit Award winner Dennis Quaid. While American Underdog plays the sentimentality hard, it does so with emotional honesty thanks to its ensemble cast which also includes the always reliable character actor Bruce McGill as Arena Football League impresario Jim Foster.
If you're my age, you remember the early years of the Kurt Warner story when Warner was plucked out of seeming obscurity while packing groceries to support his family and given a chance to hit the refresh button on his football dreams by Foster, an ultimate showman whose high visibility gave Warner just the spotlight he needed to attract the NFL's attention once he started winning.
However, if you think that American Underdog is just about football you're wrong. If there's one thing that's made abundantly clear in the film it's that Warner was a winner in life long before he became a Super Bowl champ and Hall of Fame quarterback. American Underdog tells the story of Warner's years of challenges and setbacks that could have easily derailed his dreams if not for the support of wife Brenda (Paquin), his friends and family, and his coaches along the way.
American Underdog is truly one of the most entertaining and engaging feel-good films of the year.
It's not surprising that the star of Shazam! could capture both the confidence and the working class humility of Warner, a balance necessary to capture the essence of how Warner processed the game and life and each setback along his path. With a believable athleticism and undeniable charm, Levi fills up the screen with so much heart you can't help but root for him.
American Underdog also wonderfully captures Warner's wife, Brenda, a former marine who would become his "teammate for life." In an awards season where acclaimed filmmaker Jane Campion, who directed Paquin in her Academy Award-winning turn in The Piano, is in the mix with her latest film The Power of the Dog, it's a joy to see Paquin return to theaters in such a polar opposite yet truly wonderful film that captures both the gravitas and exhilarating humanity Paquin brings to her performances. She's sublime as Brenda.
The real gem of American Underdog, however, may very well be Hayden Zaller, a blind actor who was 11-years-old when he filmed American Underdog and portrayed Brenda's blind and intellectually disabled son Zack whom Warner would end up adopting. This is Zaller's movie debut and it would be criminal if it's his last film as he embodies life and gratitude and wonder and has an extraordinary chemistry with both Paquin and Levi.
Dennis Quaid, who worked with The Erwin Brothers on I Can Only Imagine, is an inspired choice to capture the uniqueness that was Rams coach Dick Vermeil while both Ser'Darius Blain and Bruce McGill serve up winning turns here.
While American Underdog is undeniably a faith-based film, it's also a film with tremendous crossover appeal as it tells a familiar, family friendly story that feels good and entertains the entire way. Based on the book by Warner and Michael Silver, the script by David Aaron Cohen, Jon Erwin, and Jon Gunn hits all the right notes without ever becoming overly maudlin. The Erwin Brothers have become incredibly dependable in telling inspirational and entertaining stories that please both critics and audiences and the same should be true here. D.P. Kristopher Kimlin's lensing is vibrant and alive while Nicole Elespuru's production design nicely captures the film's Oklahoma-shot locale and Warner's own life journey transformation. John Debney's original music plays all the right notes to immerse us in this feel-good, winning film.
A Lionsgate release, American Underdog arrives in theaters on Christmas Day.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic