'American Underdog' review: Kurt Warner story moves the chains

How do you beat a real life superhero story? You don't. But 'American Underdog' is good enough.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

From supermarket stock boy to Super Bowl MVP: Kurt Warner's story is so unbelievable that unless it was true you'd never think it was possible. 

But it takes more than a great story to make a great movie, and "American Underdog" is the just-good-enough tale of a nice guy who worked hard and believed in himself and eventually got his chance to shine. And shine did he ever. 

Zachary Levi in "American Underdog."

Zachary Levi ("Shazam!") — who has wholesome, good guy charisma to spare — plays Warner, who's quarterbacking at the University of Northern Iowa in the early 1990s, holding on tightly, maybe too tightly, to big dreams of going pro. At a country western bar he meets Brenda (Oscar winner Anna Paquin), and he's so smitten with her that he finds out her address and walks three-and-a-half miles to her home the next day just to give her a rose. That's the kind of guy he is. 

On the field, his window is closing. Against all odds he lands a tryout with the Green Bay Packers and is let go a day later due to a simple hesitation on the sidelines. Back home and living on food stamps, he takes a job stocking shelves at his local grocer. Things are looking grim — at one point he runs out of gas on a rural highway, and has to trek several miles through the snow to the nearest gas station — but at least he's got Brenda, and her two young children who he helps her care for.

Then he gets an unlikely call to come play football — arena football, "football at the speed of NASCAR," as it's explained by Iowa Barnstormers coach Jim Foster (Bruce McGill). Warner suits up and leads the Barnstormers to the league championships, at which point he catches the eyes of a recruiter for the NFL's St. Louis Rams. 

The rest is history — slightly amended history, but history nonetheless — and directors Jon and Andrew Erwin, working from a screenplay based on Warner's book "All Things Possible," balance the on- and off-field action well, without ever digging to deeply into the psyche of Warner. He's an honest guy, a hard worker and a believer, and there are strong religious underpinnings in the story's telling that are meant to connect some of the dots. (The Erwin Brothers are Christian filmmakers whose past works include the 2018 hit "I Can Only Imagine" and 2020's "I Still Believe.") 

"American Underdog" is a story of triumph over adversity, of an unlikely hero, and of a sports miracle played out in front of millions. It's never quite as rousing as Warner's real life tale — Levi's Warner is a little too polished, with all his rough spots smoothed out and buffed to a sheen — but it's tough to improve on real life when the truth is not only stranger than fiction, but better than it, too.   



'American Underdog'


Rated PG: for some language and thematic elements

Running time: 112 minutes

In theaters