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15 Years Later, The Dick Vermeil Cinematic Universe Expands

Movie stills from Invincible and American Underdog; real Vermeil images from Dick Vermeil: A Football Life|

Dick Vermeil, as played by Greg Kinnear (in Invincible) and Dennis Quaid (in American Underdog). Insets of the real Vermeil during those timeframes.

It is an understatement to say that movie studios thrive on franchises. The Marvel “Cinematic Universe”—basically, a series of sequels to 2008’s Iron Manhas made $23 billion. Other companies, for obvious reasons, are looking to get in on that. The trick is finding characters that potential moviegoers already know and love. The Hunger Games movies made $3 billion, but people weren’t attracted to that film series because of the wigs or because the emo dude from American Beauty was in the first one. It had a built-in audience from the book, what the executive types call "pre-awareness."

Though Lionsgate has had a few successful original series—Saw, John Wick—the Hunger Games movies are the studio’s most financially successful films. Clearly the studio would love to find some established IP to build a new franchise around. I don't want to jump the gun on this, but they appear to have found a good one: Former professional football coach Dick Vermeil. In the new film American Underdog, which is about Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner’s journey from supermarket stockboy to the NFL, Vermeil is played by Dennis Quaid.

Perhaps Lionsgate is looking for Iron Man-like success with Vermeil. That character first appeared in 1963; Vermeil was born in 1936. Vermeil last appeared in the 2006 film Invincible, which was about the unlikely road of a different NFL player: Former Philadelphia Eagles WR Vince Papale. That was a Walt Disney Pictures production; Lionsgate did not return a request for comment about how they acquired the rights to the Dick Vermeil character from Disney.

Invincible was a Disney Sports Formula movie, and as a result it was pretty good. Invincible is like all those movies. It's light as a feather, simple and enthusiastic, and spiritually a remake of Rocky. Maybe it’s not a better movie than the ballyhooed Silver Linings Playbook, but I think Invincible is a better movie about Philadelphia and the Eagles than the one about the double-or-nothing dance contest bet.

Vermeil was the secondary character in Invincible: Played by Greg Kinnear, he was basically a foil to Mark Wahlberg’s Papale. Vermeil had by that point coached just two seasons at UCLA, leading the team to a Rose Bowl win over undefeated Ohio State in his second year. The movie sets up both Vermeil and Papale as outsiders looking to prove that they belong on the Eagles. Elizabeth Banks is the love interest (for Wahlberg, not Kinnear). Who can forget this great Dick Vermeil speech:

A team with better character can beat a team with better talent. I believe that. You guys are not the team that is short on talent here today. And I swear you will never again be the team short on character. We need to find the soul of this team again. The soul that drove great Eagle players. Players like Norm Van Brocklin, Tommy McDonald, Steve Van Buren; they weren't just out here playing for themselves, they played for a city. People of Philadelphia have suffered. You are what they turn to at times like these. You are what gives them hope. Let's win one for them. Let's win one for us. Bring it in.

Riveting. I need to hear that speech over a montage of Eagles highlights scored with dramatic music.

Now, 16 years after Invincible and two decades later on the NFL timeline, Vermeil is back in a similar film. It follows Kurt Warner from Division I-AA Northern Iowa to his first start for the St. Louis Rams in 1999. American Underdog was directed by the Erwin brothers. Their Kingdom Story Productions has a partnership with Lionsgate to make highbrow Christian movies for the studio. (Their 2018 film I Can Only Imagine, based off a song by Christian band MercyMe, made $86 million on a $7 million budget.) By highbrow, I mean that the script is relatively polished (there are some good lines!) and the Christianity is more implied than overt. Still, it opens with a young Kurt Warner watching Ronald Reagan toss the coin at Super Bowl 19.

American Underdog is an obviously Christian movie—TobyMac, who used to be in DC Talk, has a song in it—and the football players don’t cuss. But, honestly, I expected more Christianity in the movie about the quarterback who quite literally wrote the foreword to Christianity for Dummies. “The Lord does come first in my life, and I'm not shy about sharing that with the world,” Warner writes in the book the film is based on, All Things Possible: My Story of Faith, Football, and the Miracle Season. Yet in the book the Christianity comes and goes seemingly at random. He and Brenda have a nice conversation about Jesus, and he thanks God at the end of the film. That’s about it.

I also expected more Dick Vermeil. We meet him 10 minutes into Invincible. It’s 75 minutes before we meet him in American Underdog. Before that it’s all about Kurt meeting Brenda—who is a calendar model after winning the bar’s “tightest jeans contest”—during something called a “barn dance,” and also Kurt learning to stay in the pocket at Division I-AA Northern Iowa, and Kurt stocking shelves at a grocery store, and Kurt getting cut by the Packers after just two days, and Kurt playing in the Arena League and losing in the title game.

That part of the movie is probably better than the part of the movie with Vermeil and the Rams. Mike Martz emerges as a supervillain who simply cannot find it in him to believe that Warner can make it in the NFL. He later believes in Warner, and sets him up for his next challenge: a battle with Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis, too, turns face at the end of the film. Now that we’ve met these two characters, I expect them to get their own spinoff films soon. A film about the time Jay Cutler cursed out Martz seems inevitable.

American Underdog is even lighter than the average Disney sports movie; we don’t really get to learn much about any of the characters besides Kurt and Brenda. Also, it ends with Warner's first game and not the famous Super Bowl he won after the Titans stalled out just a yard from sending it to overtime, which is kind of weird. Most sports movies wouldn't pass up the chance to make their hero a Super Bowl champion. (We do get a “what happened next” segment.)

If you’re a fan of Vermeil, too, you might be disappointed about the lack of screen time. We don’t even get to see him cry, which is kind of Vermeil's signature move, although it is mentioned onscreen that he cries a lot. But I understand—this is a marathon, not a sprint, and the smart move is to use the established Vermeil character to expand the universe. I hope we get a new Vermeil-centered film in the future, though, after the other characters get established. Maybe it can be about his time in Kansas City, or his wine business, or even about his time as a spokesman for an insurance company. I’m excited to see where this all of this goes.

If this fails Lionsgate, I do have an idea for them: Suzanne Collins wrote a prequel novel to the Hunger Games series. Why not go back to a proven winner? I read it. It was better than that third Hunger Games book, and Lionsgate got two movies out of that one. If none of the Vermeil projects are ready yet, that'd make a pretty good movie, too.

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