American Underdog (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A standard underdog story – and that is all

“American Underdog” is a standard underdog story which neither overachieves nor underachieves. While I appreciate its earnest handling of story and characters to some degree, the movie does not have enough life or personality to distinguish itself from those countless feel-good sports drama films ranging from “Rudy” (1993) to “The Blind Side” (2009), and that is a bit disappointing considering some nice efforts from its several main cast members.

Like many of its seniors, the movie is based on an unlikely real-life underdog story which is supposed to touch and inspire us a lot, and its rather heavy-handed opening scene conveys to us how much its real-life hero, Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi), has aspired to be on the top of the National Football League of US since he was very young. Although things do not look that promising to him during his subsequent college football career, Warner keeps trying nonetheless, and he certainly expects a lot when the annual NFL draft is finally started.

Unfortunately, it turns out that nobody in NFL is particularly interested in Warner, and it seems that he may have to get some other job once his time in the college is over, but he still does not give up at all. Although he eventually decides to earn his living a bit via working as a local supermarket employee, his mind and body are still driven toward NFL, and his aspiration is fully supported by Brenda (Anna Paquin), a young struggling single mother with two kids who becomes much closer to him than expected after their accidental encounter at a local bar. Like him, she has her own lifelong aspiration, and they sincerely promise to each other that they will support each other’s aspiration, though they are still tentative about whether they can actually marry.

What follows next is a series of personal hardships they manage to endure. While they are still not married, Warner tries to support Brenda and her two kids as much as he can whenever he is not working or pursuing his dream, and Brenda surely appreciates that, but then there comes a very desperate moment on one particularly cold winter day. Discerning that the woman he dearly loves and her two kids really need more financial support, Warner eventually agrees to join a local minor league football team, and we get some amusement as he tries to get himself accustomed to his new environment. Yes, he surely looks clumsy as entering a field again after so many years, but, what do you know, thanks to his brusque but no-nonsense coach, it does not take much time for him to be back in his element.

Because he frequently has to be separated from Brenda and her kids due to his job, Warner finds himself rather estranged from them as time goes by, but then he and Brenda find themselves consoling each other over a sudden personal loss. I do not go into details here, but I can tell you instead that I was rather baffled by how the movie hesitates to delve deeper into the consequent crisis in their shared religious belief. In fact, it even steps away from what could be very emotionally intense for both of them as hurriedly moving onto its last act, and that is rather odd considering how it often emphasizes their faith in God’s will as well as themselves throughout the story.

The last act mainly revolves around Warner’s unexpected big opportunity via a prominent NFL team led by Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid), who insists on recruiting Warner despite a lot of objections from inside and outside his team. Just because he believes in Warner’s hidden potentials, Vermeil firmly stands by him, and Warner is certainly happy to ready himself against many odds and pressures to come upon him.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Warner does not disappoint Vermeil and many others in the team at all when he suddenly becomes the quarterback of the team right after a rather nasty accident on the field, but directors/producers Andrew and Jon Erwin (While the former serves as one of the co-editors of the film, the latter participates in the adaptation of Warner and his co-writer Michael Silver’s book “All Things Possible”, by the way ), keep things rolling under their competent direction. While the movie blatantly tries to pull our heartstrings as almost everyone in the story is watching Warner playing on the field, John Debney’s score sounds as dramatic as required, and the eventual uplifting moment is naturally followed by the obligatory epilogue reminding us again of how remarkable Warner’s life and career are.

However, Warner in the film often feels too flat and plain outside his goodwill and determination, and that sometimes undermines the diligent acting of Zachary Levi, who shows here a more serious side of his talent in contrast to his cheerfully goofy comic performance in “Shazam!” (2019). In case of several notable cast members in the film, Anna Paquin manages to bring some spirit to her rather thankless roles, and Bruce McGill and Dennis Quaid comfortably fill their respective spots although they do not have many things to do besides motivating Levi’s characters whenever it seems necessary.

Overall, “American Underdog” plays its story and characters too safe at times, and that made my mind instantly go back to a number of better football drama films such as “Rudy”, which, in my inconsequential opinion, has more spirit and personality besides being feel-good as demanded. I will not stop you if you just want to kill your spare time, but I still think it could aim a bit higher with less convention and more honesty, and that is all.

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