It’s no coincidence that there have now been two sentimental, plucky-outsider-makes-good pro football stories committed to film built around the coaching of Dick Vermeil. At Philadelphia and later with the St. Louis Rams, Vermeil perfected that heart-on-your-sleeve, “team/players that nobody believed in” storyline to such a degree that Hollywood should probably pay him a retainer.
They don’t. But 15 years after “Invincible,” about a sandlot leaguer who made the Eagles, here’s “American Underdog,” about a quarterback nobody wanted, who found himself on food stamps, bagging groceries in Iowa, whom Coach Vermeil rode all the way to Super Bowl glory.
It’s a film by the faith-based filmmaker Alabama Erwin Brothers, Jon and Andrew, who made a mark with “Woodlawn” and set the box office alight with “I Can Only Imagine.” They deliver a solid formula sports picture with a light dose of faith and some overt small town America “conservative signaling,” and a generally entertaining movie thanks to a decent lead and stellar supporting cast.
Zachary Levi brings a little “Shazam!” swagger and a just-light-enough touch to Warner, whose Midwestern dreams of NFL fame were a long shot from the start, and grew longer and longer until the aging rookie that his coaches took to calling “Pop Warner” made the Rams contenders.
The story is framed within the romance of “fifth year senior” Northern Iowa (Division I-AA) backup quarterback Kurt and honky-tonking, line-dancing, ex-Marine divorced mother-of-two Brenda Meoni, given a flinty vulnerability by Oscar-winner Anna Paquin.
And boy, that Brenda description reads like the movie’s marketing pitch.
Theirs is a romance of modest possibilities and big dreams, but always pragmatic and always strictly PG, “living in sin” or not. Brenda has a little girl and a blind son (Hayden Zaller) just old enough for school. Kurt doesn’t need his single-mom Momma (Cindy Hogan, quite good) to tell him the stakes.
“Single mom? That’s no joke.”
But with a lot of love, a little luck and a busload of faith, they get by. Kurt doesn’t get drafted after graduating, and makes it just two days into a tryout with the Green Bay Packers. The couple and the kids eventually find themselves in an Iowa apartment where the unpaid power bill means the heat’s been shut off, forcing a road trip to his mother’s place in a blizzard in which they carelessly run out of gas.
Their salvation comes from the carnival on concrete Arena Football League — eight-players-to-a-side underpaid teams playing in civic arenas designed for rodeos and basketball games.
“It’s not football. It’s a CIRCUS!” grocery stacker Kurt blusters to owner-coach Jim Foster (Bruce McGill, perfect).
“He GETS it,” Foster enthuses to the not-yet-Mrs. Warner. “People LOVE the circus!”
This is the most cinematically-promising chapter of “American Underdog.” But while all the games are have a certain sizzle to their blocking, filming and editing, and we get plenty of how “football at the speed of NASCAR” prepared Warner for NFL success, not nearly enough is done with this seat-of-the-pants, cut-rate sports spectacle.
As dry as McGill is and as funny as we’ve seen Levi before, the Erwins keep one and all under a wet blanket for these scenes.
That makes the call-up to the Big Leagues — where Coach Vermeil (Dennis Quaid) sees “something” in our hero that his celebrated offensive coordinator Mike Martz (Chance Kelly, testy and testing) most certainly does not — play as more muted than electric.
As for “the rest,” as they say and shouldn’t even bother saying, it most certainly “is history,” and not all that surprising. Even the “inspiring” thing will only register for folks looking for “faith” signifiers.
Despite that preordained story arc and pre-digested feel, “Underdog” still gets more than enough right to recommend it. Real, grainy pre-HDTV coverage of the pre-game shows and actual games, with Levi artfully intercut with vintage footage, lends the film a lot more authority than Levi naturally brings to the role.
He’s entirely too old to be playing even a “fifth year senior,” although he’s big enough to pass for “Pop” Warner in uniform.
The picture flows much better than earlier Erwin films, and although “faith-based” and “corny” can seem interchangeable, they go easy on the corn here.
Paquin won her Oscar as a child and has only gotten better with the passing years. She makes Brenda, infamously mocked on sports talk radio and the Internet for her looks and double-wide beauty salon hairstyle, earthy and real.
Adam Baldwin gives a fine fury to his role as Warner’s college coach, blowing his stack at every fumble of “MY football” during practice.
McGill gives us a chuckle or three as the coach who dryly schools his new hire in the art of surviving Arena football.
Quaid isn’t the appropriately teary-eyed Vermeil that teary-eyed Greg Kinnear brought to “Invincible.” But he’s warm and folksy, with that faraway “underdog” twinkle when he’s talking about being underestimated, but knowing your “moment” and being ready for it when it comes.
I like my faith-based films upbeat, not “God’s Not Dead” angry and political. The Erwins manage that even as they go out of their way to not offend their Southern/Middle American “Football” and “NASCAR” audience.
“American Underdog” is — like its hero — plucky, the sort of guy/gal next door and struggling story that does itself credit when it lets its characters dream and lets us believe the American dream can still come true. Read anything more than that into it at your own peril.
Rating: PG, for some language (mild profanity) and thematic elements (alcohol, honky tonking)
Cast: Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Bruce McGill, Ser’Darius Blain, Hayden Zaller, Adam Baldwin and Dennis Quaid.
Credits Directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin, scripted by David Aaron Cohen, based on “All Things Possible,” by Kurt Warner and Michael Silver. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:52