What's the big deal?
Cool Runnings is a sports comedy film released in 1993 and is loosely based on the real-life story of the debut of the Jamaican bobsleigh team at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. Directed by Jon Turteltaub, the film stars Leon Robinson, Doug E. Doug, Rawle D. Lewis, Malik Yoba and John Candy in the last film released during his lifetime. The film follows the attempts of four Jamaican athletes to qualify for the bobsleigh event at the Winter Olympics with the help of an unconventional coach. Despite several differences between the film and real life, the film was released to a positive reception from critics and became an instant hit with audiences. It would go on to earn more than $154 million worldwide and has remained popular in the years since.
What's it about?
In the heat of the Jamaican summer, aspiring sprinter Derice Bannock is foiled in his attempts to qualify for the Olympic team after he is accidentally tripped up by fellow competitors Junior Bevil and Yul Brenner. Realising that his dream of representing Jamaica at the Olympics is over, Derice hatches a plan to compete instead at the Winter Olympics in the bobsleigh event despite Jamaica never having done so before. With the lack of people willing to compete, Derice is able to convince his best friend Sanka Coffie as well as Bevil and Brenner to begin training.
In order to help them achieve success, Derice tracks down former gold medal winning bobsleigher Irving Blitzer who is now living in disgrace in Jamaica as a bookmaker. Despite his initial reluctance, Irv accepts and begins his unconventional training in order to get them in shape to compete. But it's not just the track the team must contend with at the Olympics with sceptical opponents, mocking media attention and bitterly cold temperatures making their task even harder.
Doug E. Doug
Rawle D. Lewis
Irving "Irv" Blitzer
Raymond J. Barry
Lynn Siefert, Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg*
Release Date (UK)
25th February, 1994
Comedy, Family, Sports
What's to like?
I shouldn't be too surprised that the already inspiring story has been made more so by the Disney studio because that's just the way they do things. But there is no denying that Cool Runnings is an excellent film demonstrating the feel-good factor of these likeable losers overcoming the odds. The comedy is strictly slapstick in nature and almost cartoony at times which is befitting of its intended family audience. It also benefits from a game cat led by Robinson and Doug who provide more laughs than you might be expecting. Candy might not be as effortlessly funny as he normally is in films but his performance as the coach seeking redemption for past mistakes is a winning one and a fine epitaph for a man of considerable talent.
The film has a strong Jamaican vibe throughout the picture, both in tone and soundtrack and it makes the film a hard picture to dislike. Even though you are probably aware of the story, you still follow the film and its unlikely story of people willing to make a stand against the norm. The film gives the impression that it is wearing a smile which almost every viewer will also have. It's just a very chilled (in every sense) and happy film, brightening your day and entertaining with embarrassing ease.
- The film takes quite a few liberties with the truth - in stark contrast to the film, the Jamaican team were welcomed by the other competitors with open arms and were even helped by the US team who lent them another sled for training purposes. The weather in Calgary during the Olympics was also much milder than depicted and the Jamaicans weren't the only Caribbean team competing at the bobsleigh at the event - both the Virgin Islands and the Dutch Antilles also competed.
- Disney originally envisioned the cast to be Denzel Washington as Derice, Eddie Murphy as Sanka, Wesley Snipes as Brenner and Marlon Wayans as Junior. Only John Candy was their original choice and the only cast member who agreed to the film.
- Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton has stated that this is his favourite film because he identifies with the characters in the film and the obstacles they overcome. Unfortunately, the four Jamaican characters and their coach were all fictitious and not based on their real-life counterparts.
- The film is not the only one to focus on memorable competitors from the 1988 Winter Olympics - Eddie The Eagle follows the real life story of amateur British ski-jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards who competed at the same Games.
What's not to like?
Pouring scorn on a film like Cool Runnings is like hating a puppy for not speaking English but the film does raise a few uncomfortable issues. The four leads are saddled with excessively heavy Jamaican accents (none of them are actually from Jamaica, interestingly) which make them feel like slightly out-dated sterotypes. This isn't helped when you realise that these lovable-but-gormless idiots are unable to get their act together until Candy's alcoholic and morally questionable wastrel turns things around. Now I'm not one who accuses films of playing the racism card very often but it is hard to ignore when it's as blatant as this. I certainly not accusing Disney or the film-makers of being intentionally racist but in today's society, it's aged about as well as Gone With The Wind.
The film also takes a few liberties too many with the truth in order to make the story better - but it didn't need to. For once, real life had provided the perfect Disney story but they couldn't resist meddling with it. As inspiring and amusing as the film is, it strangely lacks the plausibility that should have been an integral part of Cool Runnings. They've turned a true story into one that feels too impossible to believe and this stops the film from feeling as inspirational as it should.
Should I watch it?
Cool Runnings is a easily digestible family film that will amuse and inspire in equal measures but it hasn't aged as well as you might have hoped. Yes, it's funny but it sacrifices its real world sense of wonder to settle for being a fairly standard and racially awkward comedy that isn't as good as it could have been.Having said that, the film will entertain younger viewers as well as nostalgic adults in the way only Disney can.
Great For: Jamaican audiences, bobsleigh teams, underdogs, white saviours
Not So Great For: critics reading between the lines, Olympic competitors, Germans
What else should I watch?
Sports often brings up stories of people or teams overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to triumph in the face of adversity. But sometimes, even getting to play is a victory in itself - Sandra Bullock's Oscar-winning turn in The Blind Side lifts the film above mere melodrama, focusing on the true story of NFL star Michael Oher rising from humble origins to the glamour of the league. Other real-world sporting dramas have been turned into movies, of course - The Hurricane depicts the wrongful arrest of boxer Rubin Carter for a triple murder he did not commit, I, Tonya follows the rivalry between skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan which turned violent while Moneyball is the story of the ground-breaking 2002 baseball season of the Oakland Athletics, using pioneering scouting techniques to forge a team of under-valued talent on a strict budget.
Naturally, sports doesn't always provide an interesting or gripping storyline but Hollywood has plenty of writers ready to develop their own instead. Recent sports comedies include the well received but financial flop Goon, Blades Of Glory which is an underrated Will Ferrell comedy that does for ice-skating what Anchorman did for local news and DodgeBall which is as funny as it is ridiculous.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox