Kurt Warner was in the TV booth for a recent Raiders/Browns game and when he was asked about his holiday plans he casually mentioned the opening of “my movie.” He has earned that humble-brag because his life story is absolutely made for the faith-based, Cinderella sports story “American Underdog,” which is so wholesome and golly-gee wonderful it makes “The Blind Side” look like “North Dallas Forty.”
Ah, but that’s OK, as Zachary Levi (the TV series “Chuck,” the DC movie “Shazam!”) as Kurt and Anna Paquin as his wife, Brenda, are terrific together and do a fine job of selling the sometimes hokey material, as the young couple overcomes a myriad of obstacles and setbacks by staying true to one another, keeping their faith and reciting lines that sound like an extended athletic apparel campaign, e.g., “If this is your dream, don’t give up on it!” and “This is my time. I know who I am, and I know why I’m here.” (Also, major props to Levi and Paquin for rocking the 1990s denim and hairstyles like they own ’em.)
Levi is 41 and Paquin is 39, but we buy them as twentysomethings who meet cute in the world’s most sanitized honky-tonk in Iowa. Kurt is an amiable lunk who is winding down his career as a talented but unheralded quarterback at small-school University of Northern Iowa, while Brenda is a single mother who got married while she was in the Marines but is now raising her two children, including a son who is legally blind and has brain damage, on her own. None of that deters Kurt from wooing Brenda, wearing down her defenses and marrying her.
Now comes the hard part: How are they going to make ends meet? Kurt went undrafted by the NFL, had a disastrous one-day tryout with the Green Bay Packers and is stocking shelves at a grocery store when he gets the pitch from Bruce McGill’s Jim Foster, the owner/coach of an Arena Football League team called the Iowa Barnstormers. Arena Football? “That’s a circus,” says Kurt, but hey, Jim will pay him $100 cash for every TD, so Arena Football it is.
In real life, Warner also had a stint overseas with the Amsterdam Admirals, but “American Underdog” cuts to the chase and goes straight to the moment when Kurt is signed by the St. Louis Rams in 1998 as a third-stringer before he finally gets his chance as a starter – and the rest is NFL history, as Warner became a league MVP, a Super Bowl MVP and eventually a Hall of Famer who is considered to be perhaps the greatest undrafted player of all time.
“American Underdog” lets the story tell itself, with some crackling-good cameos by Chance Kelly as Rams offensive coordinator Mike Martz, and Dennis Quaid (in his 14th sports movie!) as head coach Dick Vermeil, who feels a kinship with Kurt because he, too, was away from the game for an extended period of time before getting the obligatory One Last Shot with the Rams.
Levi has a physical presence that makes for a credible pro QB, and Paquin is a force as the indefatigable Brenda, who has weathered more tragedy and heartbreak than most and deserves happiness and success as much as Kurt. They found it together and they’re still together, with five more children, and “American Underdog” is a fitting family album for the Warners and solid, safe entertainment for the viewer.