Just as sports fanatics root for their favorite teams, film fans often have favorite cinematic subgenres that bring them to cheers and tears.
I happen to be a sucker for inspirational sports dramas, especially the “based on a true story” movies featuring improbable heroes who — win or lose — perform remarkable feats on the basketball court, on the hockey ice or in the boxing ring.
So, the new film American Underdog is an easy touchdown for me: Not only does it tell the unlikely true story of Kurt Warner, the greatest undrafted player in the history of the National Football League, but it also was filmed in my home state of Oklahoma.
Still, the American Underdog team deserves credit for crafting an uplifting and engaging film that captures the essence of Warner’s larger-than-life football fairy tale. Directors Jon and Andrew Erwin, the filmmaking brothers who previously made the fact-based blockbuster I Can Only Imagine in Oklahoma, move the goalposts far beyond just the gridiron to share the feel-good story of Warner’s marriage, family and faith.
Adapted from Kurt Warner’s memoir All Things Possible: My Story of Faith, Football and the First Miracle Season by Jon Erwin, David Aaron Cohen and Jon Gunn, American Underdog chronicles the quarterback’s incredible true story as he goes from stocking shelves at a supermarket to playing arena football to emerging as a two-time NFL MVP, Super Bowl champion and hall of fame quarterback who played for 12 seasons between the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals.
But it also chronicles Warner’s relationship with his wife Brenda, a former Marine who had two children from a previous marriage when the couple started their courtship. The QB’s bond with her son Zack, who suffered a traumatic brain injury as an infant that left him visually impaired and developmentally disabled, particularly motivated Warner to become a better man, which translated to him becoming a better player.
Zachary Levi (Shazam!, The Unbreakable Boy) is a natural playing the ever-likeable Kurt Warner, one remains one of football’s easiest superstars to root for, and Oscar winner Anna Paquin (The Piano, “X-Men) ensures that Brenda Warner is portrayed in all the complicated nuance she deserves.
Newcomer Hayden Zaller charms as Brenda’s son Zack, and seasoned character actor Bruce McGill adds great color as arena football mogul Jim Foster. Fans of the TV series Chuck will get a kick out of the reunion of Levi and Adam Baldwin, who plays Warner’s college coach.
The Erwins reunited with I Can Only Imagine star Dennis Quaid, who brings an appropriately irreverent aura to Dick Vermeil, the legendary NFL coach who took a chance on Warner.
Covering Warner’s entire storied career isn’t the American Underdog game plan. The movie focuses on the trials and triumphs leading up to his “First Miracle Season,” along with the early years of his romance with Brenda, with whom he now has seven children and two grandchildren.
Despite filming during the COVID-19 pandemic — adhering to extensive safety protocols prevented any shutdowns on the production — the Erwin Brothers and their squad pull off a win in recreating the football prowess of Warner, who was the ringleader of the Rams’ 1999-2001 “Greatest Show on Turf” offense.
But the filmmakers, who specialize in faith-based films based on inspirational real-life events, score even bigger with their portrayal of the Warner family’s story off the field. For the most part, the Erwin Brothers have developed a knack for telling faith-based stories that aren’t too preachy or too clean-cut to be real and relatable.
Except for a short stint shooting in Frisco, Texas, at Star Stadium, the 91-acre campus of the Dallas Cowboys world headquarters and practice facility, American Underdog was filmed in central Oklahoma earlier this year. Filming took place Oklahoma City, Edmond, Arcadia, El Reno, Okarche, with locations like Jim Norick Arena on the OKC Fairgrounds and Wantland Stadium at the University of Central Oklahoma fitting seamlessly into the telling of Warner’s story.
The Erwin Brothers have already made another movie in Oklahoma — the family drama The Unbreakable Boy, also starring Levi and due in theaters March 18 — with plans to make more films in the Sooner State. With a new film incentive, a recent spate of acclaimed titles and a lot of momentum, the Oklahoma movie and television industry just might be an underdog story on par with Warner’s high-flying football career.