DirectorThe Erwin Brothers (Andrew and Jon)
Release Date(s)2021 (February 22, 2022)
Studio(s)Kingdom Story Company/City on a Hill Productions (Lionsgate Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor’s Note: This 4K Ultra HD release is an Amazon exclusive.]
Few tales in the history of professional sports are as inspirational as that of Iowa native Kurt Warner. A high school football player whose debut as quarterback for the University of Northern Iowa came as a fifth-year senior, Warner hoped that his brief college career would be enough to draw attention in the 1994 NFL Draft. But when the draft passed him over with only the Green Bay Packers extending an invitation to training camp—where he lasted just two days—Warner ended up living on food stamps and stocking the shelves at his local Hy-Vee supermarket. Fortunately, the Arena League’s Iowa Barnstormers signed him the following year, which led to back-to-back ArenaBowl appearances. After this success, the St. Louis Rams offered Warner a “futures contract” and sent him to play in NFL Europe before bringing him back to run their scout team as third-string QB in 1998. By the following year, Warner had earned a spot as Trent Green’s backup. So when Green suffered a devastating pre-season injury, Rams coach Dick Vermeil trusted his instincts and chose Warner as the team’s starting quarterback. What happened next, of course, is the stuff of NFL legend.
But Warner’s exploits on the football field are only part of the story. The heart of American Underdog, as directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin, is Warner’s relationship with his college sweetheart Brenda—a pretty unique individual in her own right—who was then a divorced mother of two and a former corporal in the Marine Corps. Zachary Levi (Chuck, Shazam!) and Anna Paquin (Fly Away Home, Almost Famous) somehow manage to capture the essence of the real life couple perfectly here, and they’re supported by the always-likable Dennis Quaid (The Right Stuff, Far from Heaven) as Rams coach Dick Vermeil, as well as a breakout performance by newcomer Hayden Zaller as Brenda’s disabled young son Zack. The film earns points too for featuring Levi’s Chuck compatriot Adam Baldwin in a small role. While there’s really nothing particularly flashy or surprising about American Underdog, it’s just a great inspirational human underdog story well told—formula yes, but the formula at its best. And while the Erwin Brothers cut their teeth as Christian filmmakers, this is not per se a religious film. Those of faith will certainly find and recognize it here, but mainstream audiences will also appreciate another kind of faith—the faith Warner has in himself, the faith that his family, friends, and coaches have for him, and the faith and dedication this couple has for each other.
But none of that would really work unless the football action in American Underdog was done well, and let me tell you—it’s beautifully photographed. Shot over the course of two days in the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility, these scenes are so realistically staged—using retired professional players—that they intercut seamlessly with actual NFL broadcast footage. And using a combination of Steadicam rigs, crane and dolly shots, and cameras mounted on fast-moving go karts, the filmmakers place you right in the middle of the action, allowing you to experience the games the way the coaches do on the sidelines and the way the players do themselves, with the whole spread of the field visible as the plays develop. As a lifelong NFL fan, I have never seen football action done better on the big screen. It’s pretty damn impressive. And the most surprising thing about it is that these scenes were done so quickly and on such a limited budget. I could watch a whole film of this stuff.
American Underdog was captured digitally by cinematographer Kristopher Kimlin in the ARRIRAW codec, mostly in open gate 3.4K using Arri Alexa Mini cameras with Panavision C, E, and T series anamorphic lenses. But for the Super Bowl scenes, the production switched to Arri Alexa LF cameras to shoot large-format at 4.5K to give the game footage greater clarity and impact. The film was finished as a native 4K Digital Intermediate framed at the 2.39:1 for its theatrical release. Lionsgate brings the film to Ultra HD graded for high dynamic range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are available). Overall image clarity is excellent, with abundant fine detail and accurate colors. Blacks are deep, while highlights are naturally bold. The early portions of the film have a somewhat subdued palette that’s true to the rural Iowa environment, which means the later Arena League and NFL sequences—featuring vibrant team colors and large stadiums—really pop. All in all, this is a very good 4K image.
Primary audio on the 4K disc is provided in English Dolby Atmos. This mix was actually created for the film’s theatrical release, but it wasn’t used there—theatergoers heard a Dolby Digital sound mix instead. So this UHD is the first time the Atmos mix can be experienced as intended. As this is largely a dialogue-driven drama, for most of the film the mix offers few frills. The soundstage is admirably wide, with clear and centered dialogue as well as ambient use of the surround channels for music and environmental cues (the height channels are mostly used to complete and enclose the sound environment overhead). Panning and directionality are modest, but they’re smooth and natural. However during the game footage, the mix gets a little more active, opening things up with player calls, big-hit tackles, crowd noise (which could be a tic louder during the NFL games to add realism), and play-by-play broadcast announcers (some of whom actually came back for this film to recreate their own historical commentary). The height channels add a bit of lift to the passing game too, helping to create a larger sense of scale in these moments. Don’t expect the Atmos to ever really dazzle, but it’s a good mix that serves the film well. English Descriptive Audio and French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes are also available, as are optional subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Both Lionsgate’s 4K UHD disc and the Blu-ray in the package include the same special features as follows:
- Audio Commentary by Andrew Erwin, Joe Erwin, and Kevin Downes
- Inspired (HD – 16:08)
- Making the Cut (HD – 13:45)
- A Coach’s Faith (HD – 30:48)
- New to the Scene: Hayden Zaller (HD – 6:10)
- Meet the Champion (HD – 14:49)
- Behind the Game (HD – 8:13)
- American Underdog: Behind the Story (HD – 3:39)
- Deleted Scenes (HD – 11 scenes – 17:44)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:21)
It’s a nice batch of material—more than a film like this usually gets to be sure—and some of it was produced by our old friend Cliff Stephenson. The audio commentary by the producer and directors not only reveals their enthusiasm for the Warners and their story, but gets into the couple’s real history compared to the fictionalized version seen on screen. The film is surprisingly accurate, but in some ways Kurt and Brenda’s actual story is even more remarkable than what you see in the film. The video-based extras do include a bit of EPK material, including a piece that was apparently shown to audiences in theaters with the film (Meet the Champion, in which Warner is interviewed by Steve “the Mooch” Mariucci—the coach who actually cut him from the Packers years ago). Thankfully, in the more hand-crafted features you get to see plenty of the real Kurt and Brenda on the set interacting with the cast and filmmakers. It’s clear from this footage that Warner and Levi (who’s come a long way since Chuck but remains every bit as likable) developed an easy camaraderie while working together. You also get a look at the film’s test screening process, which is unusual for Blu-ray special features. But the best of these extras by far is A Coach’s Faith, a thirty-minute segment with the real coach Vermeil being interviewed by Heidi Gardner of SNL fame. Now, you might be wondering why Gardner of all people would be called upon to interview Dick Vermeil. But it turns out that not only is she a huge NFL football fan, she grew up a Kansas City Chiefs fan (and Vermeil was that team’s head coach for five years). So Gardner really knows her subject and she’s done her research too. As she asks Vermeil about scout teams and snap counts, you can tell that he’s surprised and delighted, and he completely opens up to the discussion. This piece is one of the more unexpectedly entertaining features I’ve seen on a disc in good long while. As for the deleted scenes, most of them are additional moments of Kurt bonding with his new family. The best of the lot features Brenda and especially Kurt advocating for young Zack with his grade school teacher, which impresses Brenda’s father. A Digital Copy code on a paper insert completes the package.
American Underdog is a very good movie, a great football story, and that rare inspirational film that will please both faith-based and mainstream audiences alike. I’ve watched it twice now—once with my wife (who really enjoyed the film despite having little interest in football) and again while preparing this review—and I liked it even more the second time. Thankfully, Lionsgate has delivered it in a solid 4K release that actually packs a nice batch of special features. (Note that the Ultra HD edition is currently exclusive to Amazon.) If you think you might be even remotely interested in American Underdog, trust me—both the film and this disc are worth your time. Recommended.
- Bill Hunt