Two decades ago, in events many have called too unreal to be a movie, Kurt Warner went from stocking groceries in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to only months later, being signed as a starting quarterback for the St. Louis Rams and leading them to a dramatic Super Bowl victory.
Since his pivotal first season in 1999 — popularly known as “the greatest show on turf” — the world has come to know Warner, who retired from pro football in 2010, as a hardworking overcome, devoted husband of his wife Brenda, loving father of seven kids, and a public figure who takes his Christian faith seriously.
This Christmas, those remarkable early chapters of his biography will hit the big screen in “American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story.” Lionsgate has just released the first trailer for the inspirational biopic starring Zachary Levi (“Shazam”) as Warner, Academy Award winner Anna Paquin (“The Piano”) as his wife Brenda, and Dennis Quaid (“Frequency,” “Blue Miracle”) as St. Louis Rams head coach Dick Vermeil.
“American Underdog” brings filmmaking brothers and co-directors Jon and Andrew Erwin into a brighter global spotlight. They have over a decade of inspirational hits under their belt, including 2014’s family comedy “Moms’ Night Out” (starring Sean Astin and Patricia Heaton) and 2018 music biopic “I Can Only Imagine.” After the latter’s $86 million worldwide box office windfall, major Hollywood studio Lionsgate inked a long-term deal with Kingdom Story Company led by the Erwins alongside producers Kevin Downes and Tony Young.
“It really gives people hope,” said co-star Paquin. “He’s come from nothing. He’s tried, he’s failed, he’s picked himself back up again. Eventually, he actually succeeds at getting his dream.”
Clearly longtime fans of Warner, the Erwins consider partnering with him on this biopic a match made in heaven. “Kurt and Brenda Warner’s true story of faith and determination deeply inspired Andy and me,” said Jon Erwin in a statement. “We can’t wait for it to inspire audiences all over America this Christmas. It’s the perfect time to come together as a family and have your dreams rekindled. If he can accomplish his dream, so can all of us.”
The screenplay is based on NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner’s bestselling memoir “All Things Possible: My Story of Faith, Football, and the First Miracle Season,” with the former NFL star and his wife also executive producers on the film.
Sports Drama Seeks NFL-Sized Audience
In depicting Warner’s unlikely NFL debut in its Midwest context, “American Underdog” attempts to straddle the line between two genres: an inspirational sports biopic akin to Disney-produced “Invincible” starring Mark Wahlberg, as well as a small-town love story where local church and personal beliefs play a significant role.
The filmmakers aspire to top their past efforts in both genres, made possible with a budget that reportedly far eclipses their earlier projects. Past entries by the Erwins include 2015’s football flick “Woodlawn” produced on a shoestring budget, and 2020’s true-story romantic tear-jerker “I Still Believe” about Grammy-winning music artist Jeremy Camp, which starred KJ Apa and Britt Robertson.
The increased budget enables the Erwins to enhance their tried-and-true production process. For the script, “Friday Night Lights” writer David Aaron Cohen shares credit for the screenplay with Jon Erwin and frequent collaborator Jon Gunn. Significantly, renowned Hollywood producer Mark Ciardi (“Miracle,” “The Rookie”), known for dramatizing realistic on-field gameplay, joined the creative team to spearhead sports action scenes.
Yet audiences who once flocked to faith-and-family fare have become more savvy, following a glut of titles that lacked production excellence or allowed a heavy-handed evangelistic impulse to overshadow all-ages storytelling. Beyond the Erwins, box office returns and streaming charts reveal a few players as masters of the genre, all with new releases on the horizon.
They include producer DeVon Franklin (“Daring to Live”), LightWorkers led by Roma Downey (“On A Wing and A Prayer”), Monarch Media (“The Black Belt”), Affirm Films (untitled George Foreman biopic), producer Mark Joseph (“Reagan”), and, of course, director Mel Gibson, whose long-rumored sequel to “The Passion of the Christ” is underway.
In a crowded market, the Erwins seek to stand out by having the full backing of a major studio. Joe Drake, chair of Lionsgate’s Motion Picture Group, ticks off all the ways that “American Underdog” aligns with what audiences love about the holiday season.
“The power of faith. A drive to bring out the best in all of us. The strength of family. And, of course, the height of the NFL championship season,” he said in a statement. “When you take all of that together, the perfect release date for this movie is Christmas Day, and that’s where we have decided to date it.”
“American Underdog,” will be in theaters on December 25.
Josh Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy for several media outlets including The Stream. His articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion & Politics, Faithfully Magazine, Religion News Service, and Providence Magazine. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area with their two children.