Kurt Warner’s story always has seemed like something dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter.
The tale of a small-school quarterback who, a few years removed from a job stocking the shelves of an Iowa grocery store, leads an NFL team through a season culminating in a Super Bowl victory would be tough to swallow as fiction.
Of course, it all happened before our eyes.
And now Warner’s story is a movie — the rather enjoyable and at times moving “American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story.”
Those hoping for this to be a football flick first and foremost may be a bit disappointed. There is plenty of pigskin in “American Underdog,” but it ultimately is the story of the ups and downs of Warner’s relationship with Brenda, the woman who will become his wife, as he chases a dream that for so long seems well out of reach.
On the other hand, those worried the film would be, for lack of a better word, preachy shouldn’t worry. The role Christianity plays in the Warners’ lives is well-known, and the film is a product of the Kingdom Story Company, an affiliate of Lionsgate that specializes in Christian movies. And yet even though “American Underdog” is directed by a tandem well-known for Christian films — the Erwin Brothers, Jon and Andrew — it should play well to a general audience. (Note that it is rated PG, not G, so it’s clean but not completely sanitized.)
After introducing us to a young Kurt — glued to a TV in his family’s Cedar Falls, Iowa home while watching legendary San Francisco 49ers QB Joe Montana win a Super Bowl — we spend time with adult Kurt (Zachary Levi) at Northern Iowa University. He’s riding the bench because he consistently defies his coach (Adam Baldwin, “The Last Ship”) by leaving the pocket when the defense turns the heat up.
Nonetheless, Kurt has the date of the NFL Draft and is working on highlights tape to send to agents and teams — anyone who can help make his dream of playing in the league a reality.
A friend and teammate, Mike Hudnutt (Ser’Darius Blain of the new “Jumanji” movies), convinces him to take a break and go with him to a country bar, which is where he first lays eyes on Brenda (Anna Paquin). Wanting a way to meet her, he subsequently asks Mike to teach him how to do the country dances in which he saw the pretty young woman engaging.
When he does ask her to dance, she responds, “’Bout time.”
They hit it off, but while she does eventually give Kurt her name, she declines to give him her number. In the bar’s parking lot, she informs him she’s a divorced mom of two young children and that he surely doesn’t want to get involved with her situation, driving off before he can have a say in the matter.
After some sleuth work and a 3-mile walk to her home, he sees her again and meets her family, including Zack, who is legally blind as a result of a brain injury and who is played enchantingly by the also visually impaired Hayden Zaller in his movie debut.
Reluctantly, Brenda lets her guard down for Kurt, and the scenes involving their first kiss and his proposal are, however obligatory, two of the movie’s finest moments. (You criers out there may want to have tissues ready for the latter.)
As for the football, fans will know Kurt eventually will accept an invitation to the Arena League before getting his second chance to impress an NFL team. (An earlier audition for the Green Bay Packers — where Brett Favre is entrenched as the starter — doesn’t exactly go well.)
It would have been nice if the film — penned by Jon Erwin, David Aaron Cohen and Jon Gunn — devoted more time for Kurt’s decorated career with the then St. Louis Rams. (“American Underdog” is more about hanging in the pocket figuratively than literally.)
We do get a bit of the preseason, when Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz (Chance Kelly, “Generation Kill”) seems to have it for backup QB candidate Kurt, while Head Coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid, in odd, only vaguely Vermeil-ian hair) has a gut feeling about the kid.
“American Underdog” concludes with Kurt’s first regular-season game as the Rams starter, a clash with the Baltimore Ravens in September 1999, when intimidating all-pro Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis (former NFL linebacker Nic Harris) stalks him from across the line of scrimmage.
The Erwins have a bit of trouble with maintaining narrative momentum, the directors struggling to build toward a climax — admittedly challenging given we know the success Warner went on to enjoy in a career that culminated with induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
In all, though, the film works, thanks largely to its leads.
As he proved to be for years as the namesake of the TV series “Chuck” and more recently as the titular star of the 2019 superhero movie “Shazam!,” Levi is an appealing lead. His Kurt is affable, determined and entirely likable — just as you believe the real Warner to be.
And Paquin (“True Blood”) shines as Brenda as Kurt’s career takes him away from home, leaving her with an added burden. It’s an emotional performance that doesn’t careen out of bounds.
The movie is based on the book “All Things Possible,” “co-written by Kurt Warner and longtime sports journalist Michael Silver, and it counts the Warners among its executive producers. Yet even though it is never anything but flattering to its subjects, it never rings untrue.
While perhaps more akin to a long field goal than a bomb for a touchdown, “American Underdog” nonetheless puts points on the board.
‘American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story’
When: Dec. 25.
Rated: PG for some language and thematic elements.
Runtime: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
Stars (of four): 2.5.