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American Underdog Reviews Are Up, Read What Critics Are Saying About The Kurt Warner Biopic

Zachary Levi is Kurt Warner in American Underdog.
(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Just in time for Christmas comes American Underdog, the story of NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams in 2000. What’s better than an inspirational sports biopic around the holidays? Well I’ll let the critics be the judge of that. Reviews are out, so let’s take a look and see if you want to include this movie in your holiday plans.

American Underdog stars Zachary Levi as Kurt Warner, the former grocery store stocker-turned-NFL MVP. Anna Paquin plays his wife, Brenda Warner, with Dennis Quaid and Chance Kelly portraying Warner’s coaches Dick Vermeil and Mike Martz, respectively. Based on the quarterback’s 2009 memoir, All Things Possible: My Story of Faith, Football and the First Miracle Season, the biopic is a story of Warner’s perseverance and determination to pursue his dreams on the gridiron. It’s a promising premise that had some wondering if the Shazam! actor might be positioning himself for Oscar buzz

However, our own Dirk Libbey’s CinemaBlend review gave the film just 2 stars out of 5, saying that just because it’s a true story doesn’t make it a good movie. American Underdog dabbled in a faith-based narrative, Libbey said, but in a way that felt afraid to upset a larger audience. And while Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin’s chemistry carried the movie, the character development was lacking, as Warner showed none of the growth that’s vital to an inspirational story.

The fact that Zachary Levi looks basically the same when he’s supposed to be playing a college kid and when he’s supposed to be playing an NFL quarterback starting in the Super Bowl, is symptomatic of the big problem with American Underdog. We never see change or growth in the character of Kurt Warner any more than we see it in the actor playing him. He’s a great player at the beginning of the movie, and he shows how great he can be at the end. There’s never any moment where Kurt needs to overcome some great obstacle or his own ego in order to be better.

Katie Rife of the AV Club gave the film a C+, saying that if the intent was to make an inoffensive Christian football movie, it achieved its desired outcome. American Underdog chooses a message of perseverance over anything political or religious, and while it has its corny moments, Rife thought that if you can swallow your cynicism for the “believe in yourself” narratives of many a family movie, you’ll be fine with this one. 

American Underdog regards dreams as near-sacred things, and although an opening monologue acknowledges that Kurt’s story is improbable, the implication is still that you, the audience member, can do it too if you work (and believe) hard enough. Absent the praying bit, which is less prominent here than in other recent faith-based films, that’s not an unusual message coming from Hollywood.

Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic rated American Underdog 3.5 stars out of 5, saying the Erwin Brothers mostly got out of the way as the film’s directors and let the story stand on its own merits. Aside from the portrayal of Mike Martz, the movie generally was able to avoid throwing Hollywood cliches into the plot. 

To succeed, football movies have to avoid clichés the way quarterbacks avoid blitzing linebackers; it’s impossible to do so completely, but they do their best to stay out of harm’s way. American Underdog definitely delivers a feel-good, never-give-up message — a staple of not just sports movies but many movies in general.

David Ehrlich of IndieWire also gave American Underdog an average grade, ranking it a C, but pointed out the traditional makings of a good film don't really apply to biopics and Erwin Brothers movies. It's mostly what you'd expect to get from a faith-based sports movie, but Ehrlich argues it falls short of delivering the underdog story promised in the title.

For every 10 seconds of football action, we get 10 minutes of Levi staring into the camera like a deer in the headlights and wondering 'why God would give me a dream that’s never gonna come true.' What kind of cruel deity would bless someone with the upper body of a small mountain range, only to curse them with the responsibilities of a human adult? Make it make sense!

It sounds like the critics agree that if you’re looking for a feel-good sports movie that’s not too … anything, American Underdog might be for you. A little football, faith and family can be a great holiday combination, but you might want to temper your expectations any further than that. American Underdog hits theaters on December 25. Take a look at our 2022 Movie Release Schedule to see what else is coming in the new year.

Mom of two and hard-core '90s kid. Unprovoked, will quote Friends in any situation. Can usually be found rewatching The West Wing instead of doing anything productive.