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film review

Dennis Quaid as Dick Vermeil and Zachary Levi as Kurt Warner in American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story.Michael Kubeisy/Lionsgate

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American Underdog

Directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin

Written by David Aaron Cohen, based on the book by Michael Silver and Kurt Warner

Starring Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin and Dennis Quaid

Classification PG; 102 minutes

Opens in theatres Dec. 25

America loves nothing more than a good underdog story. Someone fighting against all odds to, in whatever seemingly unattainable way, become extremely rich, all because they had a dream. Even the most cynical of us fall for it if the story is done right, which should be an easy feat if it’s based on the success of a real person. This is why awful films like 2009′s The Blind Side can be nominated for Best Picture and win Sandra Bullock an Academy Award.

Unfortunately for prolific “faith-based” filmmakers Andrew and Jon Erwin – who almost exclusively make Christian biopics such as I Can Only Imagine and I Still Believe – American Underdog fails to deliver on its promise of being ... an underdog story.

The Erwins had a ready-made hit with the story of the real-life success of quarterback Kurt Warner, the NFL’s most successful undrafted player of all time. Warner famously worked stocking shelves at a grocery store just five years before winning MVP at his first Super Bowl. What an inspiring come-from-behind tale, right?

But American Underdog is a film so disjointed, so boring and so deeply uninspiring that it is difficult to root for anyone, or even think of Warner as a genuine underdog. Played by Zachary Levi (a man who is 41 years old and yet in no way is made to appear younger to help convince us he’s a character easily 10 years his junior) Warner is hard to buy as an underdog here. Is it because he decided to marry single mother Brenda, played by Anna Paquin in a wig so awful that it becomes the most compelling part of the film? Or is it because he couldn’t take no for answer, refusing to give up on his dream?

American Underdog fails to deliver on its promise of being an underdog story.Michael Kubeisy/Lionsgate

Warner is depicted as so singularly focused on becoming an NFL athlete he almost comes off as selfish and entitled. He doesn’t follow directions or listen to his coaches or really anyone in his life, but he is a “nice guy” so the audience is supposed to perceive his stubborn attitude as resilience. The problem is it becomes increasingly grating. At one point in the film, after another major setback, Kurt says to Brenda, “Why would God give me a dream that was never going to come true?” It’s a moment I’m sure was meant to make the audience feel anything but annoyance at his entitlement, but for me, it did just that.

The film isn’t overtly Christian enough to credit all of Warner’s accomplishments to the power of prayer, but audiences are still not given a reason as to why he found success as an athlete. Becoming a professional athlete is an extremely rare occurrence, even for the most promising people – and almost nothing is attributed to Warner’s actual skill or physical strength. It’s just that he didn’t give up trying, even when he should have. It’s never explained how wanting something – but taking a very long time to get it – makes someone an underdog.

Ultimately, American Underdog can and will find its audience, just like other Erwin Bros. productions, because of its lightly faith-based messaging. But if you’re looking for a real biopic with actual substance, you may want to touchdown in another cinema.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.