By Lynn Venhaus
:Believe. In your dreams, in where your heart leads, in your talents and in what you can do as a teammate. That’s the satisfying take-away from “American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story,” which takes us on a remarkable journey from homespun Iowa to a glorious shining moment in Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000.
Obviously, there is more to his life, but for a tidy 1 hour, 52-minute film, this is a worthy timeline. With a real Hollywood ending and a movie-script-like life, the major beats of Kurt and Brenda Warner’s pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming story has been turned into an inspirational drama that’s more about overcoming adversity and less about football action – but all of it equally compelling.
The NFL two-time MVP and Hall of Fame quarterback went from stocking shelves at a supermarket to becoming an American football star, but that’s not the only thing covered — so is his courtship and marriage to his wife Brenda.
The movie kicks into high gear when an undrafted Kurt is signed by the then-St. Louis Rams, and hometown fans will remember with pride and revisit with glee what happened that miraculous season, when the second-string quarterback lead the Greatest Show on Turf to a 13-3 record, a thrilling playoff run and stunning 23-16 Super Bowl championship victory.
Because we lived through it, that story is unforgettable, and the filmmakers do the St. Louis team’s first title justice.
Both directors Jon Erwin and his brother Andrew Erwin, started out as camera operators, filming the Crimson Tide’s games in Alabama for ESPN, so they have well-honed skills in that regard.
The feel-good aspect of the Warners’ tale about their struggles and how their faith and close-knit family helped them get through the tough times is bona fide, largely due to the skills of Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin. And like the Warners themselves, they are easy to admire.
Levi is best known as the star of TV series “Chuck,” the leading role in “Shazam!” and a Tony nominee for the musical “She Loves Me.” Paquin won an Oscar for best supporting actress at age 11 for 1993’s “The Piano,” and originated the role of Sookie in HBO’s “True Blood” (2008-2014).
This film adaptation could have been cheesy and sappy, but it’s rooted in reality. And you cheer for the couple – especially if you regarded Kurt and Brenda during their exciting years in St. Louis. Traded away, they left in 2004, Kurt eventually played for the Arizona Cardinals, and was part of their first-time Super Bowl appearance in 2009. Now living in Phoenix, they remain involved in local charity work here.
Based on Kurt’s book, “All Things Possible: My Story of Faith, Football and the First Miracle Season,” written along with Michael Silver and published in 2009, the screenplay co-written by Jon Erwin, Jon Gunn, and David Aaron Cohen, who wrote the 2004 film adaptation of “Friday Night Lights,” is as much Brenda’s story as it is Kurt’s.
The former Brenda Meoni served in the Marines and was a divorced mother of two when she met Kurt at a country music bar. Her son Zach, well-played by newcomer Hayden Zaller, had been injured as a baby and was partially blind with some brain damage, and Kurt developed a special relationship with him.
Their sweet love story chronicles how they supported each other through difficult patches and how strong they became together.
Their relatable circumstances tug on the heartstrings as it must, but the film isn’t preachy. It’s better than most people – worried about that approach – will find. The Erwin brothers have made Christian faith-based feature films since 2010, so stories about redemption and the human spirit triumphing are in their wheelhouse. I just wanted it to be believable and not mawkish, and I think it strikes the right balance..
The football storyline brings in Dennis Quaid as Dick Vermeil, and while he’s fine, his make-up and prosthetics are horrible, and Chance Kelly plays Assistant Coach Mike Martz as a villain, which is eye-opening.
Cynics may stay away, but for the most part, St. Louisans who are Warner fans, will embrace it. The Warners’ impact on St. Louis is undeniable, and the movie is a good example of how perseverance sometimes makes things happen.
And in this case, a movie was made about their lives – which is a testament to the kind of people they are and what they achieved, and the movie makes sure we know they didn’t do it alone.
“American Underdog” is a sports biopic directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin, starring Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Dennis Quaid, Chance Kelly and Bruce McGill. Rated PG for some language and thematic elements, it runs 1 hour, 52 minutes. It opened in theatres Dec. 25. Lynn’s Grade: B+.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.