Some time after 2000, Disney had this weird streak of doing sports-based drama movies. Nothing wrong with that, but they were abundant: Remember the Titans, Invincible, Glory Road, Miracle, The Rookie, etc. These sports dramas were supposed to fill some need that was demanded, I guess. I think they were an extension of 90’s underdog sports movies, which often had elements of comedy to them and they all ended pretty much the same: the loser team defeats the big, corporate-sponsored, experienced teams. Disney didn’t shy away from these either: Angels in the Outfield, Air Bud, Rookie of the Year, The Mighty Ducks…but those are the mainstream sports. If I said the term “Bobsled”-
This movie is one of the corniest, yet best-loved of the 90’s sports drama-comedies. And we’re gonna review it now! So rise up, rush in, raise hell, and release your Rastafarian ride! This…is Cool Runnings!
The plot: In 1988 Jamaica, school teacher Derice Bannock is a runner with Olympic aspirations. A trip causes him to lose said dream, but he finds out his father had once been consulted by an American named Irv Blitzer (Played by John Candy), to use his lightning speed to be an effective bobsledder. Derice convinces the now-washed-up Irv to start up the first Jamaican bobsled team for the Winter Olympics, with the help of friend and pushcart driver Sanka Coffie, as well as two other runners, Yul Brenner and Junior Bevil.
As the five train and eventually make their way to Calgary, Canada, they find everyone just laughs at the notion of a Jamaican bobsled team, and they find themselves almost total outsiders in the cold Canadian setting. And while each member of the team fight their own demons, Irv’s past comes back to haunt him: as a disgraced gold-medal winner who lost the medals when he was found cheating. Can the guys fight to attain the respect they deserve?
How’s the writing? As most of you know, this movie was based on a true story. As it often happens, there are certain creative liberties taken to adapt even the most cut-and-dry Cinderella sport stories to make them fit snugly and neatly into a 90-minute runtime. Among other things:
-None of the bobsledders are based on the actual sledders: Devon Harris, Dudley Stokes, Michael White, Freddy Powell, Chris Stokes, and coach Howard Siler.
-The team was not a bunch of sprinters, but rather a helicopter pilot…and pushcart derbyists. Also, it was pioneered by a group of American businessmen inspired by said pushcart races.
-No one was caught in any sort of cheating scandal. In fact, putting weights in the front of the sled (the crime Irv was cited as committing), is not only legal, but done to balance out the sled for safety.
-There was little to no animosity toward the Jamaicans in the real event. In fact, they were even given a backup sled by another team in spirit of sportsmanship so they wouldn’t be forced to buy one.
-The crash, as seen in the movie (literally. That was the actual footage they used.), was not in the third run, but the fourth. The film cites a loose bolt as why it happened, but experts claim it was due to high speed and a poor turn that caused them to spill. Moreover, they didn’t carry the sled to the finish line, but walked alongside it.
-Dudley Stokes and Michael White also competed in a two-man sled competition, and came in 30th out of 38. Also, they weren’t the only Caribbean-based bobsledders in the two-man run, going up against the Netherlands Antilles and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
-The movie implies that the Jamaican team was a medal contender, but even ignoring the crash, their combined run times still put them in 26th place…dead last.
Tommy Swerdlow was one of the main screenwriters…and was high on heroin when he wrote the script. What started as a debauched romp in the Olympic athlete community didn’t even involve the Jamaican story. It was executive producer Chris Meledandri (Yes, that Chris Meledandri) who pressed the screenplay into a PG-rated film about the team we know today. So we have a “based on a true story” narrative with several wild inaccuracies, written by a high-as-a-kite first-time writer who acted in Howard the Duck and the script got molded by the guy who gave us animated Dr. Seuss movies and the minions. What could possibly go wrong?
Even if you’re turned off by the cookie-cutter approach to the script, or the fact the team is essentially the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reimagined as human Jamaicans, the story is…serviceable. It’s predictable, but the story hinges a lot on the corny gimmick that the team doesn’t know how to handle the cold. It’s corny humor, but you have to be in that kind of mood or this movie is just going to hurt. There’s a lot of good lines, both dramatic and funny, but for a simple sports movie, it does its job well.
Who makes it worth it? When I was a kid, I loved Sanka best (Before I realized his name was a pun on a type of decaf coffee) because he was, for all intents and purposes, the Michelangelo of the group: the comic relief who always had something to say. As I’ve grown up and appreciated that his one liners diminish as the movie goes on, I’ve learned that Irv Blitzer is my new favorite character.
This was John Candy’s last movie released before he died five months later. Both Wagons East and Canadian Bacon were released posthumously. But Candy brought a great element of tragedy without feeling morose to the role, playing all sorts of roles: the disgraced loser, the hardass coach, the snarky doubter, the pleading has-been, the righteous beacon, the beleaguered negotiator, and ultimately, the triumphant victor. None of these roles are easy, and Candy just nails the nuances and complexities with masterful ease, even injecting his famous sense of comedic timing in a movie that didn’t really call for him to be funny. We miss ya, John.
Does it give the feels? The movie is candy-coated with bright Caribbean colors, a silly underdog plot, and lots of one-liners. But as the movie transitions into the late second act, it changes considerably. Suddenly, there are stakes and they are steep. Irv’s past creates tension. Derice idolizes the Swiss team to the point where he starts to lose his identity. Junior starts questioning his allegiances between his team and his controlling father. The East German team starts hassling the Jamaicans. The hard moments are hard, and they feel tough. From the disqualification notice and Irv’s boardroom speech to their first and slowest run, there are some moments that feel genuinely tense.
But then comes the crash scene, which is executed beautifully, from the cacophony of scraping ice and the rattling of the loose bolt, and it gradually slows to a still, tense silence. Even though you know what’s about to happen, even though that slow-clap-turned-ovation is so cliché…it feels inspirational. Again, it’s so corny and done before, but you’d have to be made of stone to not feel anything.
Best quality provided: It knows exactly when to take itself seriously and when not to. It has tone mastered.
At first, it plays with the notion of the Jamaican bobsledders in a silly, playful way. It almost feels like Little Giants or The Mighty Ducks, like a kid’s movie where there are tons of sight gags, witty one-liners, even some slapstick. It can be seen as a goofy kid’s movie…until they get to Canada. Literally, the color gets sucked out of the movie, and it starts taking itself seriously. The characters aren’t screaming goofballs but olympians with personal challenges. Irv isn’t a despondent shmuck in a bar, he’s a professional trying to earn back his respect. And a Jamaican bobsled team isn’t a punchline anymore, but a reality. The movie matures. If it took itself too seriously in the beginning or didn’t get as dramatic in the second half, this movie wouldn’t have an iota of the following it does now.
What could have been improved: It’s easy to cite the inaccuracies or the goofy distracting nature of Sanka as problems, but they’re not huge problems. My issue is the other three sledders. Because at least Sanka has a personality.
Derice is the dead-serious leader who is written as kind of a blank slate. He seems only driven by Olympic success and doesn’t have much of a personality beyond that. Yul Brenner is the overcompensating tough guy, but after storming into his first scene like a pissy bear, he doesn’t get much screen time, even when he’s trying to urge Junior to stand up to others. Junior himself gets an interesting character arc, if it’s a bit disjointed, and his dynamic with the rest of the team is weak at best.
Derice figures out who he is, Yul warms up to his team, and Junior wins his father’s support. It’s all well and good, but it was the sport and the event that took precedence, dwarfing our investment in the characters’ personal struggles, leaving Irv as the one truly interesting and dynamic character.
Verdict: You’ll figure out pretty quick whether you’ll like this movie or not. It may not be historically accurate, but it’s meant to be a cute underdog story with equal parts silly and dramatic. Even if the story seems cliché, the characters are endearing. It knows how to play itself and doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is. I give it eight lucky eggs out of ten.
And if you don’t like it, come at me, bro. I’m a badass mother who won’t take no crap off of nobody.