Producers: Kenya Barris, Calvin Broadus, Constance Schwartz-Morini, Mychelle Deschamps and Jonathan Glickman Director: Charles Stone III Screenplay: Danny Segal and Isaac Schamis Cast: Snoop Dogg, Tika Sumpter, Mike Epps, Andrew Schulz, Kal Penn, George Lopez, Jonigan Booth, Adan James Carrillo, Kylah Davila, Caleb Dixon, Alexander Michael Gordon, Shamori Washington, Elias Ferguson, Kandi Burruss, Thom Scott II, Nancy De May, Luis Hernandez, Gavin Cole, Darby Farr, Terry Bradshaw, Deion Sanders, Curt Menefee, Michael Strahan, Howie Long, Tony Gonzalez and Jay Glazer Distributor: Amazon MGM Studios
Rapper Snoop Dogg has sponsored a football league for at-risk kids in Southern California for almost twenty years. That’s a laudable endeavor, but what isn’t so praiseworthy is the movie he’s made that seems inspired by his role in it. “The Underdoggs,” in which he also stars, is problematic in two important respects. First, it’s crassly derivative of other, better pictures. And second, it relies for much of its humor on drug and alcohol jokes and a stream of expletives—many in the mouths of youngsters—that quickly becomes depressing. If you removed every F-bomb and N-word from it (not to mention some other beauties), the running-time would be shortened by at least a third. (Of course, much of the dialogue would be unintelligible as well.)
The makers are well aware of the fact; they begin the movie with a caption admitting that it’s a hard “R,” ratings-wise, and suggesting that maybe youngsters oughtn’t to be watching it. But it quickly adds that we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think that adolescents are regularly enjoying stuff as rough as this—and worse—all the time, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they’ll go for this, too. So the first gag is is to link a warning about how inappropriate the movie is for kids with an admission that it’s aimed at them anyway. Way back in 1976 people complained that “The Bad News Bears,” with some questionable language and situations, was unsuitable for young audiences despite being a “family” feature. Beside “The Underdoggs” that picture now seems ludicrously tame.
But setting that aside—parents will make their own decisions about what their children should be exposed to—the more basic objection to “The Underdoggs” is that, apart from the language, weed jokes and general preadolescent goofiness, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and done better. To take but one recent example, Robert Farrelly’s “Champions,” from last year, told much the same story, though the kids were mentally challenged as well as disadvantaged and their game was basketball. It had a star who could actually act in Woody Harrelson. And it proved that the well-worn template could still work if well handled. Here it isn’t.
In the recycled screenplay by Danny Segal and Isaac Schamis, Snoop Dogg plays Jaycen “Two Js” Jennings, who as a youngster (Elias Ferguson) was a fantastic receiver in high school and college and, for a time, an NFL star. But his career cratered as his egomania ballooned, and now he lives as a rich has-been in an L.A. mansion, forgotten by the public and his agent (Kal Penn) and continuously lambasted in online videos by his nemesis Chip Collins (Andrew Schulz). When he crashes his expensive car, the judge (Kandi Burruss), from whom he expects “celebrity” justice, hits him with a ton of community service cleaning up parks in his old neighborhood, which he hasn’t visited for years.
While picking up the trash he bumps into a woebegone peewee football team with whose players he exchanges some snarky insults. It turns out that their quarterback Tre (Jonigan Booth) is the son of his onetime crush Cherise (Tika Sumpter)—there are a few flashbacks showing his younger self (Ferguson) and Cherise (Darby Farr) as a winsome student—and the chance of resuming that relationship, along with the idea that it might boost his public image, leads Jaycen to embrace the notion that he might fill the team’s vacant coaching slot as his community service. He’s joined on the sidelines by his old neighborhood buddy Kareem (Mike Epps), a motormouth and inept would-be carjacker, who becomes his assistant.
Suddenly the team is transformed into winners, though frankly how Jaycen’s influence brings that about is a mystery, since all he appears to do is saddle them with embarrassing nicknames like “Titties.” In any event their progress is undermined by the fact that their much larger rivals, the Colonels, are coached by none other than the unscrupulous Collins, who has one of the refs (Thom Scott II) in his pocket. Nonetheless they make it to the championship game, which—you guessed it—happens to conflict with an appearance by Jaycen on Fox Sports, which, because of his now-positive media persona, has offered him an on-air job. Will he choose to disappoint the kids to become a TV star, or give up the chance of broadcast glory? In addition to providing the obvious answer, the predictable roadblock gives the all-star Fox commentators the chance to make jokey cameo appearances, just as other ex-NFL players have done in earlier clips on social media. The championship action does end with what once would have been considered a twist, but by now has become as familiar as an old shoe (see “Champions” again).
So “The Underdoggs” just repeats the old cliché about an over-the-hill burnout being redeemed by coaching a team that seems destined to lose, but emerges with at least a moral victory. What it adds to the moldy recipe is a heap of nasty language and tasteless humor, in which, for example, the pre-teen players not only get drunk at a swimming party but then pee like a synchronized squad into the pool (peewees, indeed). Nonetheless the youngsters—Booth, Adan James Carrillo, Kylah Davila, Caleb Dixon, Alexander Michael Gordon, Shamori Washington—are a likable if insufficiently defined bunch, but for the ones who receive special notice from the increasingly paternal Jaycen and Tony (Carrillo), a numbers whiz whose preference for football over math club makes for a brief impasse with his parents (Nancy De May and Luis Hernandez). Sumpter makes a pleasant romantic interest, and George Lopez is his usual ingratiating self as Jaycen’s old high school coach, an unflappable, unambitious guy who gently prods his old player in the right direction. (Cheech Marin played the like role in “Champions.”) Epps is positively frantic as the constantly hyperventilating Kareem, as is Schulz as the conniving Collins.
And what of Snoop Dogg? Well, it would be charitable to call what he does here a performance—he’s basically just himself, walking (or perhaps sleepwalking) through the picture. One does have to note the irony, though, of Jaycen’s debating the propriety of using kids to polish his public image while the man who’s playing him might be accused of doing precisely that, however sincere his devotion to helping troubled children is in real life.
There’s some decent action of the kids’ games in “The Underdoggs,” but otherwise the movie is slackly directed by Charles Stone III (whose “Uncle Drew” was far more engaging) and lackadaisically edited by Paul Millspaugh. The production design (Mark Garner) comes alive only when dealing with Jaycen’s absurdly ostentatious lifestyle, and the same can be said of Provi Fulp Ramphal’s costumes, while Joseph Shirley’s score is simply inconsequential.
Like all movies that follow this tired template, “The Underdoggs” is presumably well-intentioned in its desire to warm the heart and inspire. But it pales beside others that follow the same arc, and really is excessively foul-mouthed.