Written by Patrick Hao
The Erwin Brothers might not be household names yet in the film world, but they are starting to build an empire based on a simple premise: making faith-based films rooted in secular genres. Too often, with companies like PureFlix, these faith-based films wear their messaging on their sleeves, like in God’s Not Dead, just to be easily dismissed by the mainstream secular crowd. The Erwin Brothers on the other hand have been pumping out films in tried-and-true genres. It started with the Remember the Titans-esque sports genre pastiche Woodlawn, then the Bridesmaid women gross-out humor with Mom’s Night Out. However, it was I Can Only Imagine that struck a chord with audiences as it made over $80 million on a $7 million as a niche music biopic. One could only imagine that their follow-up to that film, I Still Believe, a combination of a music biopic and Fault in Our Stars cancer weepy would have done just as well if not better if it was not for Covid-19 interfering with its March 2020 release.
That is why I found the marketing for American Underdog utterly fascinating. Nowhere in the trailer did it show its hand at being a faith-based film other than the fact that the Erwin Brothers’ production company, Kingdom Story Company, has religious undertones. The film was being sold purely as an NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner biopic starring Chuck and Rogue from X-Men. But, right in the middle and then again at the end, the film is indeed rooted in its faith and geared towards middle America.
The story of Kurt Warner was seemingly made for an inspirational film like this. The NFL certainly exploited his story during his playing career. The quarterback (Zachary Levi) went undrafted and got a part-time job shelving at a grocery store. From there, along with the support of his wife, Brenda (Anna Paquin), her kids from a prior marriage, and his lord and savior, Warner was able to become a successful quarterback in the Arena Football League and eventually, in his first season as a St. Louis Ram starter, an NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion.
If there is anything to say about The Erwin Brothers, it is that they are fully competent filmmakers who know how to please and rile the audience. They openly embrace their emotional manipulation. They are the equivalent of a babyface in wrestling pumping their arms, yelling at the crowd “Let’s Go!” The film starts with an extended bit about Warner dismissing country music before ultimately falling to its charm and square dancing with his wife. This mini-arc is just forthrightly pandering to the target audience that you must appreciate the gall.
The film delivers everything you want from a movie like this, earnestly begging you to feel inspired by the message of never giving up on your dreams. The only hint of cynicism that ever seeps through is a false note of dissension between Warner and Brenda in which out of nowhere, the supportive throughout the whole film Brenda suddenly decides that the sacrifices are too much. It is a true Walk Hard moment.
Does being competent in what they are doing make American Underdog a good film? Ultimately, it does everything it sets out to accomplish. Like a certain brand of country music, this movie was made for a specific group of audiences with no ambitions of pretending to be something it is not. Nothing about it is offensive, daring, thought-provoking, nor is any of it outright bad. It can be nice to be pandered to with shoehorned in messages about the power of prayer and BELIEF. Yet, to be so intellectually unstimulating can also be quite boring.
The most interesting thing about American Underdog is how it positions the Erwin Brothers to be a dominant force in media that has no cultural cache to coastal media consumers. While Film Twitter chats away about the age gap in Licorice Pizza or should Adam McKay decry all film critics, American Underdog and films like it will quietly be watched by millions with no discourse attached to it at all. Behind it are two brothers, quickly becoming the Jerry Bruckheimer of faith-based films.
American Underdog Trailer
American Underdog is playing in wide theatrical release.