Zachary Levi Stars as Kurt Warner in the Inspirational True Story of a Football Hero
DIRECTED BY: ANDREW ERWIN & JON ERWIN, 2021
If ever there was a real life sports story just waiting to be a movie, it was the story of Kurt Warner. Kurt Warner was the St. Louis Rams quarterback who came out of nowhere in the 1999 NFL pre-season to take over for the injured Trent Green. Expectations were low for a 4-12 club in the previous season, trying to take that next step after bringing back Coach Dick Vermeil, who was over 14 years into his retirement. The unlikely season ended up with the St. Louis Rams going 13-3 under this unknown and undrafted quarterback, eventually winning Superbowl XXXIV (34). That alone, however, is not enough to warrant a movie about your life. The true story about what makes someone a hero, worthy of looking up to, or being inspired by, often happens in the trenches of life. It is this story, that is the one that needs to be told, and it is this story that made Kurt Warner a natural subject for the inspirational film that is American Underdog.
A word about my perspective of this film: Though I mostly grew up in Texas, and since having moved back to Houston nearly 20 years ago, I spent time living in the city where the story of this film culminates. I moved to St. Louis right before high school and after returning to Texas following college, I found myself married and living back in St. Louis for a 4 year stint, starting with the 1999 football season. Having a front and center view to the Kurt Warner experience and the unexpected 1999 season was truly a gift. Since the retirement of Walter Payton, there hadn’t really been anyone in the NFL that I had truly looked up to and respected both in the game, and outside of it. Kurt Warner was someone who easily fit that bill as he stepped into the starter role as the Rams quarterback during the 1999 pre-season. Since that moment, he has continued to be someone who deserves the title of sports hero, both on the field and off. League and Superbowl MVP, and Hall of Famer, are simply titles he earned, but its not the inspirational story of who he is, or how he got there. American Underdog is the story behind the accolades, and chronicles the character of the man who rose to win the NFL’s highest achievement, a Superbowl Ring.
Based on Kurt Warner’s book, “All Things Possible”, which Warner co-wrote with Michael Silver, David Aaron Cohen, Jon Gunn and Jon Erwin’s screenplay steers away from simply being a sports film, and focuses on the many hurdles and distractions that occupied Kurt’s life, starting as a young boy, with focus on his time at college up until the Cinderella 1999 NFL season. These hurdles and distractions are fundamental to appreciating the true story of this man’s underdog story as they were the fire that shaped and forged his family, his faith, and his passion to achieve his dreams, when everything seemed like football was a closed door.
Anyone who knows Kurt’s story also knows how central his Christian faith is to who he is and how he lives his life. The Erwin Brothers (I Can Only Imagine, Woodlawn), who directed the film could have easily steered this film into the “faith-based” genre where the point of a film is to simply preach a message, a sort of bait-and-switch technique. Fortunately, American Underdog is not that film. It doesn’t shy away from, lessen, or hide Kurt’s faith, but it doesn’t seek to use it as a hammer either. It is woven naturally into the character portrayed on screen. Zachary Levi (Shazam!, Chuck) portrays Warner as a three dimensional man, complete with fears, frustration, struggles. and longing as much as he demonstrates his steely resolve, faithfulness, courage, and determination. This lack of agenda strengthens the film and gives the viewer a greater sense of what shaped this man and made the 1999 season such an amazing story.
As I stated earlier, this isn’t simply a “sports” movie. There is plenty of sports to be sure, but the true story at the heart of this film is Kurt’s relationship with Brenda Meoni (Anna Paquin-X-Men; Almost Famous), a divorced single-mom with two children, Zack (Hayden Zaller) and Jesse (Cora Wilkerson). As Kurt breaks down the walls Brenda has erected to protect herself and her children, including Zack who was blinded and disabled following a fall as an infant, we begin to see the root of his steely resolve. The strength of these relationships anchors him through the many storms of life as he works his way through trying to earn the starting quarterback job at his Division I College, failing to be drafted, failing an invite opportunity with the Green Bay Packers, working at a local Hy-vee Store, to landing a job with the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers. Through it all, we also see family tragedy, poverty, and other aspects of life that would knock anyone else off their path. To call Kurt Warner an underdog is a gross understatement. There is no way this man should have ever been in a position to do what he did, but that’s the inspiration for a movie.
Inspirational movies often fail to develop the characters, simply hitting the beats until the inspirational ending. Others, seeking to be inspirational, venture into creating caricatures of their protagonists, while glossing over the grittier details that make someone who they are. Fortunately, American Underdog, while not perfect, walks this line with amazing poise and balance. This especially remarkable given that both Kurt and Brenda are listed as producers in the film’s credits, and this is based on Kurt’s autobiography. My one complaint is that the film spends so much time telling one part of the backstory, it doesn’t have time for, and therefore doesn’t mention portions of Warner’s journey to the NFL, namely his time in NFL Europe playing for the Amsterdam Admirals. That aside, I am glad that American Underdog is a character-driven drama rather than just a sports-film, as it makes it a better movie and further emphasizes just how improbable this story truly was.
That aside, American Underdog still earns its bonafides as a truly inspirational film. It’s just one that doesn’t gloss over the struggles of life, but portrays them fully, just without the cynicism that we so often see. Most heroes are put on a pedestal and have a hard fall, reinforcing the notion that we shouldn’t really have heroes. Singer Glenn Kaiser once said from stage, “people make lousy gods”. Kurt Warner is a hero who is only on a pedestal because of his falls, and his tenacity to keep getting up because of the love of Brenda, his family, and his faith. He knows he’s not a god, but someone who has a platform to do good and inspire others, the way he was inspired as a boy by Joe Montana.
Now that his hall of fame career is over, he continues to use his platform to inspire. American Underdog reinforces this, and is the reason this film is a great fit for this holiday season. After the last 2 years of COVID, we need a film that will inspire us. A film about someone who is able to show us what it means to truly overcome, in spite of all the odds stacked against us. American Underdog demonstrates that Warner continues to be that type of hero and inspiration all the way until its final post-credit scene. American Underdog will be a crowd-pleaser and for those of us who remember watching this story unfold, it will take you back to that storied season of 1999.
Also starring Ser’Darius Blain, Dennis Quaid, Chance Kelly, Bruce McGill, and Adam Baldwin (Chuck Reunion!).