Of all of the plot devices reused in cinema over the last 50 years, the underdog youth sports team has to be in the top 10. Starting with the iconic Bad News Bears we seem to have a run of these every decade with a few that hit all of the right notes. The 70s kicked it off with the aforementioned Bad News Bears which set the foundation by which all of these films are made, the 80s brought a more serious twist with The Karate Kid, the 90s made things more silly again with The Mighty Ducks, fast forward 30 years and we have what should end up being the reference point for the 2020’s, The Underdoggs starring Snoop Dogg, Mike Epps, and Tika Sumpter.
Snoop plays Jaycen “JJ” Jennings, a former star football player whose best sporting days are far behind. After a reckless driving arrest (this is very The Mighty Ducks), JJ is ordered to atone by completing community service in his old stomping grounds. JJ finds the inspiration for the service he’ll perform when he runs into his ex, Cherise (played by the gorgeous Tika Sumpter). When he learns that Cherise’s sons football team is about as hopeless as they come he formulates a plan to pay his debt to society, rehab his image in the public eye, and win back his former love.
Look, these films are not original. It’s not just The Underdoggs, of all formula based films none so consistently hit the key points as the youth sports underdog film. Those points? 1. Former player (or single adult male) who makes some mistake, usually out of selfish ness. 2. A youth sports team that isn’t just average but so far below that you wonder if they even know what sport they’re playing, 3. A key player on the team, usually the one with undiscovered talent, will have a single mother with whom the coach will fall in love. This is known and accepted, and I want to stress again as I have before that being “formulaic” isn’t a bad thing as we’ve been lead to believe. The devil is in the details, you can follow those exact points listed above and as long as the details are solid and the emotion is real you’re going to have a winner on your hands. I’d be lying if I told you I had high hopes for The Underdoggs going into it, I was prepared for a stinker and, you know what? I was pleasantly surprised.
I think one of the reasons this film works so well is that it draws from something Snoop is very passionate about in his real life, coaching youth football. Back in 2005 the D O Double G created the SYFL, or Snoop Youth Football League, as a way to help mold young lives and make sure kids had something constructive to do with their time. Snoop will never be accused of being an excellent actor, but his familiarity with the setting and his care for the topic combine to make this his best performance to date. Granted, his best performance prior to this was 2004’s Soul Plane (which, haters be damned, I had fun with). Easily the best “actor” of the group is Tika Sumpter, and while she’s relegated to a standard side role, does everything she can with what she has. Of course, my favorite performance comes from Mike Epps who I would literally watch iron his pants because there’s no doubt he’d make it hilarious. Epps is right at home in his standard comedic sidekick role and though he hasn’t done much on the big screen as of late, doesn’t seem to have lost a step since his heyday in the early aughts.
The Underdoggs doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but what it delivers it delivers well. Funny from end to end and able to pull the emotional strings in a highly effective way I would be surprised if people walked out of this film feeling cheated. This being the type of film that I would usually recommend for a family theater outing, there is one glaring problem that deserves mentioning, the movie’s R rating. A lot of folk’s are likely to be surprised by just how vulgar the language is, the bulk of vulgarity being delivered by the films younger cast. Make sure that your household doesn’t take a hard stance against dropping an F bomb or two before buying tickets for a Sunday matinee. To get a feel for what I mean, check out the unrated red band trailer below.
The Underdoggs is streaming now on Prime Video.