American Underdog 2021 - Full Movie Watching

American Underdog 2021: Full Movie Watching

With a pair of major NFL-themed releases, America’s biggest sports league is taking aim at the NBA’s Christmas crown

Christmas is an NBA holiday, but this year the NFL is taking aim. Besides two tasty Saturday games, the league has a pair of films coming down the chimney that will rival any Hallmark TV feature for sentimentality.

Watch 'American Underdog' 2021

Coming only to theaters is American Underdog, the Lionsgate biopic on the former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner – a rags-to-riches tale after my own heart. I moved to Missouri for college when Warner washed up on the 1998 St Louis Rams roster as a 27-year-old third stringer and watched every game of his breakout 1999 season. Years later as a Sports Illustrated cub reporter I’d vibe with pro football insider Michael Silver over his 2000 Warner biography All Things Possible, the text upon which American Underdog is based.

Viewers who know Warner’s story will be relieved to know the script hits all the major beats: the “Kill Kurt” college drills that instilled his patience in the pocket, the arena league football experience that honed his viper-quick release, coach Dick Vermeil’s weepy “We will rally around Kurt Warner” news conference that came after a low-blow hit to the knee by Chargers safety Rodney Harrison wiped out Rams starter Trent Green. As for viewers who don’t know the story, oh yes, it’s all true. Warner really did stock grocery store shelves after going undrafted. His beloved future in-laws really were killed by a tornado that swept through their Arkansas home. And when Warner finally did get his shot he really was that freakin’ good, like some 100-rated passing god that could only be created in a video game.

Also premiering Christmas Day is All Madden, the much-anticipated Fox TV documentary on the American icon. Like American Underdog, this too is a nostalgia trip, a chance to spend 75 minutes with a genuine character who’s been fairly reclusive since his 2008 retirement. Co-directed by Fox Sports reporter Tom Rinaldi, undisputed champion of the soft-focus interview, All Madden doesn’t offer much in the way of story twists; most who’ve switched on a football game in the last 40 years are doubtless familiar with Madden’s success as a coach, analyst and pitchman. Where the doc surprises is in whom it gets to talk about Madden – not least boss Rupert Murdoch, who paid a king’s ransom to bring Madden to Fox after outbidding CBS for NFL broadcast rights. Besides Murdoch, among the doc’s three dozen interviewees, insights range from Madden’s wife and sons (What? He has a family?) to ex-Cowboys QB turned Fox NFL analyst Troy Aikman. “John Madden narrated my career,” he says.

Madden was in the booth for Warner’s epic 1999 season, which saw “Pop Warner” pace the league in touchdown passes and QB rating while leading the Rams past the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXIV. Along the way he became one of six players to be named MVP of the regular season and the Super Bowl in the same year. Most memorably, he brought the arena league experience to the NFL, hanging in the pocket just long enough to hit an in-stride Isaac Bruce or Az-Zahir Hakim.

American Underdog tarries in the fallow years before his Rams breakthrough, but spends most of its 112 minutes homing in on the romance between Kurt and Brenda Warner – the original ride-or-die. (They are executive producers on the film.) St Louis Rams fans, who should feel seen by directors Andrew and Jon Erwin, will vividly remember Brenda calling into sports talk shows to defend her man. When they first met, Kurt was an overlooked QB at second-tier Northern Iowa, and Brenda was an ex-Marine single mother of two. The surprise here is the spot-on casting. Zachary Levi nails Kurt’s sweetness as much as Anna Paquin does Brenda’s toughness. But the revelation is Hayden Zaller as Zachary Warner, the son who was blinded after his biological father dropped him as an infant. And then there’s Dennis Quaid as Vermeil, a choice that will make football movie buffs who remember him as the over-the-hill quarterback in Any Given Sunday feel ancient.

Besides the understated title, there isn’t much to quibble with American Underdog. (Although I could see Mike Martz, the chatty brains behind the Greatest Show on Turf attack, feeling salty about doppelgänger Chance Kelly not getting more lines…) If that hero’s journey sometimes feels like a faith walk, it’s because the Warners make no secret of their profound Christian belief. (He famously thanked Jesus on live TV after the Super Bowl win.) In another film, the religiosity might feel heavy handed. But in this one, you can’t say it isn’t earned given how miraculously things turned out for Warner, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who might well be the best undrafted player, if not the greatest Cinderella story in sports.

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That he continues to prosper on television is a testament to Madden’s lasting impact as a teacher who did more to demystify the game than anyone. He did this not only with plainspoken commentary, but with graphics innovations like the telestrator, which allowed him to scribble on our TV screens the way he might do on a blackboard. Even the Madden video game franchise has had pronounced effect on the camera angles and graphics presentations used in live games.

And then there’s the stuff you forget about Madden: that he hosted Saturday Night Live, that he was second only to Michael Jordan as a pitchman. Sprinkling some of those classic commercials was a nice touch, as was the conceit of watching Madden watch himself through the years, and watch some of what his admirers had to say about him. When Mike Madden gets going about his love for his father – “All of your careers have been Hall of Fame careers, even your role as father” – well, the line opens the floodgates as suddenly as American Underdog’s Martz telling Warner he believes in him just before siccing him on Ray Lewis’s Baltimore Ravens.

As Covid threatens to shut down sports again, you could do worse than tuck American Underdog and All Madden. If anything, they lay bare the paradox at the heart of football, showing how a game that produces so much brutality can really make you feel all the feels.

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