East Tennessee weather, Jamaican me crazy. It’s been unseasonably warm these past couple of days even for our standards. As I’m blogging today I’m sitting outside in shorts and t-shirt in February, and the thought just crossed my mind that today’s entry is twice as appropriate. We have a movie that will not only warm the hearts, but one that should warm up the body after watching nearly a fortnight of winter Olympic competition — a movie about the first Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. Even though these winter games are my preferred version, I really am not a fan of the cold, and I’m really slacking on my winter activities as of late. I haven’t skied in nearly two years. And I sure as hell have never been in a bobsled, or know anyone who bobsleds for sport or as a career. So what, exactly, drew me to this throwback? Simple. This is supposedly a classic sports story, one that would fit my February theme and also one that should appeal to me because it’s the winter Olympics. And, after last week’s letdown, I figured I should seek out something with a little more appeal, something that everyone knows or at least has heard something about.
Today’s food for thought: Cool Runnings.
Release: October 1, 1993
Four young men from the tropical island of Jamaica learn to bond with each other as they make history in their bid to become the nation’s first Olympic bobsled team.
If you’re a director taking on the task of crafting a sports drama, you are well aware of the nature of the challenge you’re up against. It’s no secret that this genre is rich in cliché, steeped in emotional manipulation, and burdened by an ever-deepening track of a formulaic storyline. Those who appreciate these kinds of films are able to overlook the pitfalls because if there’s one thing they do right, its that they remind us that sometimes real-world events play out in a dramatic fashion that can sometimes surpass the drama that fictitious films provide. As great as the next Christopher Nolan saga may be, there’s escapism in recounting the amazing feats performed by “ordinary” people (read: those who do not spend their lives in the performance arts). If you’re that director or that actor involved in the sports-moment recreation process, you have a wonderful opportunity and responsibility to cause audiences to sit back and think, “Wow, imagine that.”
Cool Runnings is a film that checks all of the boxes as far as opponents to the genre are concerned: it’s really cheesy, the story is nothing if not predictable, and the script won’t come close to receiving any nominations from stuffy high-brows. However, this is a film that has a chance to win over even the most judgmental of film snobs. John Turteltaub’s film is not only a great deal of fun, it’s soulful.
Talented track athlete Derice Bannock (Leon) has his Olympic dreams quickly dashed during a qualifying 100-meter race when he is tripped up by the small, quiet and unconfident Junior Bevil (Rawle D. Lewis) and fails to pass the finish line. However, he’s not quick to give up hope entirely when he bumps into a large man by the name of Irv Blitzer (John Candy), a two-time Olympic bobsled winner who was teammates with Derice’s father a good many years ago. Derice’s fierce determination and genuine likability slowly — and here’s the manipulative aspect coming into the fold — but surely convinces the recently-turned-bookie to put together an unlikely team for a shot at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The team is required to have a total of four, so Derice drafts Junior and the other track athlete involved in the tripping incident, a hard-headed jock named Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba) to round out the numbers.
Often times in films that have such an extraordinary set of circumstances unfolding the director’s greatest challenge — ignoring the avoiding sports cliches (which is damn near impossible to begin with) — is setting up a premise that will not only make sense, but that will fit the blueprint of a 90ish-minute movie. Given the odds against team Jamaica in these winter games, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine this movie potentially clocking in at over two and a half hours, considering the vast amount of detail Turteltaub could have injected.
Opting for a fast-paced and heartwarming experience set to the beat of an inspirational tone, he opted to exclude a great many developments that may have occurred in reality in order to suit the Disney image. This results in a few of the major moments in Cool Runnings coming across as contrived and seemingly underdeveloped. While it’s ludicrous to think that the same four men who were unable to control a slapped-together chunk of metal down grassy Jamaican hillsides are the same four who experience a modicum of success and glory at the ’88 Winter Games in the vortex of tight competition, the film is bolstered by lovable characters who make every step of the way a pleasure to take.
John Candy is as per usual a delight as the boys’ coach and team leader, a man with an axe to grind since his last Olympic attendance was blemished when it was revealed that he placed a weight at the very front of his sled, causing his Gold medals to be taken away and his reputation to become permanently tainted. With this young and obscure team from Jamaica he now finds redemption. He must overcome obstacles of his own when he discovers that one of the qualifying judges of this event is none other than his former Coach, Kurt Hemphill (Raymond J. Barry), who initially disqualifies the team out of spite. Cue the requisite inspirational speech moment in which Coach manages to sway the judging panel decision in Jamaica’s favor. It’s one of many moments that could have used some more work, but it satisfies enough
So the cynics can have their opinion. Cool Runnings isn’t perfect. Not by a long shot. But taking place of technical complexity and innovation is a vibrant, beating heart. Performances delivered by a largely unknown cast give off vibes of clever improvisation, although they likely were working from a less-than-impressive script. Doug E. Doug’s Sanka is especially memorable and together with a decent character arc provided for Lewis’ Junior, the essence of this highly improbable escapade is evident and also sufficient to consider this sports drama a successful one.
Recommendation: This section seems pretty obsolete for Cool Runnings, because I feel like I’m the last person on Earth who has seen this film. That said, if you haven’t yet, please change that. It’s a great time and makes you yearn for the days when we had films with John Candy in them. (I believe this was his third-to-last big screen appearance before his tragic death in 1994.) And I haven’t said it yet, but. . .GO TEAM JAMAICA!!!
Running Time: 98 mins.
Quoted: “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme; get on up, it’s bobsled time! Cool Runnings!”