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The lesson of “American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story” is, apparently, “Hang in the pocket until you get killed.”
At least, that’s the movie’s muddled football-is-life metaphor. Early on, we see quarterback Warner’s coach at the University of Northern Iowa dismiss him because he responds to defenders getting close by running out of trouble and making great plays. Seriously. But it’s only when he learns to stay in the pocket and take a pounding (i.e., stop running away when things get tough) that Warner becomes a champion. Get it?
Warner’s is truly an underdog tale: The Hall of Famer is widely considered the greatest undrafted NFL player ever, with a Super Bowl ring (with the St. Louis Rams) and two league MVP awards. The film follows him from his final college season to his breakthrough with the Rams. Along the way, he meets the woman he would marry, Brenda Carney Meoni (played by Anna Paquin); bonds with her young children; stocks grocery-store shelves to get by; settles for an Arena League deal; then finally sticks in the NFL. Those well-publicized parts of his story sound like fodder for a pretty good movie.
But what we get is “American Underdog.”
Directed by the Erwin Brothers (Jon and Andrew of “I Can Only Imagine” and “I Still Believe”) from a script by Jon Erwin, David Aaron Cohen and Jon Gunn, and based on the book “All Things Possible” by Warner and Michael Silver, the film is sanitized to the point of sterility. There’s little personality in the characters, including Zachary Levi‘s stoically nice lead performance. (Chance Kelly‘s hilariously antagonistic Mike Martz is a rare exception; Dennis Quaid works in a hint of Dick Vermeil‘s famous emotional availability.) Levi, who’s not far off Warner’s size but somehow looks much bigger, is clearly in his 40s, but neither he nor the filmmakers do anything to suggest the QB’s mid-20s beyond using hair dye. If his Warner has a flaw, it’s that he’s too good at everything.
So why keep repeating that old “stay in the pocket” thinking throughout the film? It might have made sense if we saw nascent QB Warner bailing too soon or making bad plays, but “Underdog” is one of those subject-blessed biopics in which the protagonist does no wrong.
Did Warner need to stop running from trouble in real life? Not according to the movie. Young Kurt promises he won’t abandon Brenda and her kids, and he doesn’t. To his mean coach, he says, “I’m not gonna quit, because that’s what leaders do.” The movie doesn’t bother to show us why Warner, whom we’re told did very well in high school, was so under-recruited in college. UNI is a lower division school — why was that the best he could do? What were those other problems from which he ran away?
And while taking hits — along with the resulting concussions and fumbles — is part of Warner’s story, so are his quick release and intelligence. Check out his “Study Ball” videos for a glimpse at his profound understanding of reading defenses. Perhaps the filmmakers felt explaining the traits that made Warner a special player would be too complicated, and that’s why they chose to depict the fuel for his rise as equal parts pluck and innate magic.
But there’s so much more to football — and life — than hanging in the pocket until linemen use you as a piñata.
‘American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story’
Rated: PG for some language and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 25 in general release