I freaking loved Cool Runnings as a kid. It was the only sports movie I ever really enjoyed. And though it’s really goofy, campily written, and is in fact a heavily fictionalized interpretation of the actual Jamaican bobsled team it’s supposedly based on, I can’t help but love it even to this day. But is that just nostalgia, is there anything that makes it legitimately good?
After being tripped up during a run to qualify for the summer Olympics, Jamaican athlete Derice Bannock unable to wait another four years, seeks out Irv Blitzer a disgraced former American bobsledder who won two gold medals before cheating during the 1972 games. Though initially reluctant, Derice manages to convince Irv to coach an Olympic bobsled team consisting of him, his push-cart racer buddy Sanka, and the two other runners who tripped during the qualification, Junior and Yul Brenner (why he’s named after the famous actor is never explained). Though at first no one believes in them, they eventually make it to Calgary for the 1988 games, and against the prejudices of other teams and the Olympics committee, attempt to prove themselves on the icy slopes.
Okay right off the bat, this movie takes a TON of liberties. So much so that it’s pretty much just the idea of a Jamaican bobsled team at the ‘88 Olympics that’s told. Secondly, this movie is incredibly corny. It’s a Disney movie and you can tell. The writing is cheesy, the humour kinda predictable, and there’s a lot of whimsy. There are a bunch of clichés, like how one of them lives in the shadow of his overbearing father while another is the son of an athletic hero and is driven to live up to his legacy, how their coach is retired and initially wants nothing to do with bobsledding, and how they face an uphill battle against a system seemed to be pitted against them. But where in other movies this over-abundance of unoriginal tropes paired with a lot of corny moments would be cringe-inducing, here it somehow works. And there’s no reason it should. I mean a few of the jokes are really bad like Sanka having to kiss an old lady and a quick-cut of exaggerated Jamaican businessmen laughing at their quest. But I think what saves this movie is its characters and heart.
Don’t get me wrong, the characters are little more than stereotypes. But they’re stereotypes done so well and so likably. For some reason I don’t even mind that none of these actors are Jamaican. Derice is the leader with a dream most dedicated to his cause, and his excitement and determination really rubs off. He’s played very adequately by Leon Robinson. When I was younger I really liked Sanka of course, Doug E Doug’s jokey catchphrase spewing comic relief. He’s not as funny as I remember but still has a handful of pretty great moments. Malik Yoba plays Yul, the tough, rebellious one who like Derice is just determined to get to the Olympics. He bears a grudge against Junior (Rawle D. Lewis) for tripping him up, but you know through this experience they’re going to bond. Junior is the level-headed son of a wealthy father who finances their whole campaign. Though the characters are nothing new, the way their personalities bounce off each other doesn’t feel contrived, it’s just kind of fun. Some might not be able to get past their clichés as well as the overall clichés of the movie, but for me it’s not hard to enjoy them. Their rivals are an over-the-top team of German bullies who can be insufferable at times, but Peter Outerbridge as their leader is occasionally funny in how hammy he is, particularly at the end.
John Candy is naturally the best performer though and in my opinion, the best part of the movie. This was my introduction to him and did he ever leave an impression! -this is still one of my favourite performances of his. Originally the studio wanted Kurt Russell to play the part of the coach, but Candy campaigned for it and he really was the right choice. He’s both a very funny and inspiring guy whose convictions you believe. Candy conveys perfectly Irv’s sorrow at what he did and how much he wants to do right by this team and the sport, because he’s that passionate about it. Once again there are a couple terrific Candy speeches particularly when he tells the story of why he cheated. I’m never going to forget the line: “A gold medal is a wonderful thing; but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”. It’s purely the strength of his performance that keeps you invested through all the over-the-top shunning scenes from his old Olympic connections, including his old coach who coincidentally, is now chair of the Alliance of Winter Sports. What are the odds the guy with the most personal grudge against Irv would be in the place to make everything harder for his team?
Yeah you do have to contend with those, but there are a few enjoyable tropes in this movie too. I have always loved and still do, even though I know it’s not that funny, the many jokes about Jamaicans being fish out of water in the cold environment of Calgary. Maybe it’s just because I’m a sadistic Canadian who loves seeing people from warmer climates react to ours. Like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it’s got a wonderfully dated quality to how colourfully everyone dresses and how clearly it’s a turn-of-the-decade film. There’s a training montage that’s pretty fun, a pretty good soundtrack from Hans Zimmer that never fails to get you pumped, and a really good sequence where the gang struggles to walk on a hockey rink. Hell, even some of the obvious jokes like Irv’s demonstration scaring off all potential team-mates and Sanka’s recurring replies of “Yes mon” to Derice asking if he’s dead, still get a laugh out of me. There are a number of heartwarming scenes, some admittedly forced. Like after Sanka mocks the ridiculousness of Yul’s dream, only for Junior to encourage him, and later when on Yul’s advice, Junior stands up to his father when he comes all the way from Jamaica to bring him home. They’re cheesy but not the worst. Again, most of the genuinely endearing stuff comes from when John Candy’s around, as well as just the uplifting atmosphere. Cool Runnings is a really typical underdog story, but maybe because of how likeable these guys are, how unique the situation is, and how dedicated the whole movie seems to be, it’s really earned. You cheer at their triumphs, wince at their failures, when they name the sled “Cool Runnings”, sing their song, and come up with a trademark Jamaican motto, you can’t help but grin. And the ending without spoiling it, is one of the things I like best about the film. In one of the few instances where they remain (for the most part) accurate to history, they give us an ending that back then was really unusual for an underdog sports movie. It actually goes against convention but winds up being as powerful if not more so than endings to films like Rocky and Rudy. It goes a little corny too, but it’s so deserved at this point, you can’t help but be with it all the way, concluding on the best note it can.
Cool Runnings is the kind of movie that couldn’t be made today, what with true story films justifiably so, being much more committed to accuracy. If the film was made more closely to the truth it might have been more interesting, but not as fun. I don’t think anyone would remember it today. But because it was a Disney movie that went all out with underdog sports movie tropes, overly goofy characters and circumstances, yet threw so much effort and dedication into it, it’s become kind of a cult classic comedy. It is admittedly an ideal nostalgia movie; those who’ll get the most out of it will be the ones who saw it growing up, but I do think it works without the rose-tinted glasses. It’s not technically a great movie and the fact a lot of it is fabricated is likely to turn some people off to it, which I get. But it is admirable in how it does feel new in its clichés, how it makes its characters likeable, and just how well-intentioned it is. John Candy’s performance, the heartwarming ending, and even some of the jokes do make it a good movie, even for those who didn’t grow up with it. But as someone who did, it’s especially enjoyable, forever quotable, uplifting, and inspiring!