Cool Runnings (1993)

Directed by Jon Turteltaub

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“Although the Jamaican bobsled team broke all the rules, the movie is content to follow them – to reprocess the story into the same formula as countless sports movies before it.” – Roger Ebert

I wasn’t sure where to begin with this review.  First of all, I never really “review” movies or even analyze them.  I watch them and then feel compelled to write about them here.  I hope people read these, but I do them for myself (I’m aware of many of the spelling errors) as a way to remember more of the movies I watch and hopefully learn something about them.  The movies I most enjoy writing about are the ones that carry with them some historical context and that are more than just a straightforward genre movie.  I want to know what the filmmaker was trying to do, and I want to know how his/her environment/era influenced the film.  It’s more interesting in this way to try and unearth the deeper meaning behind a movie.

Some movies are much too abstract for me to begin breaking down, and some, like Cool Runnings, are much too straight forward for me to pretend there was any meaning to the production beyond making money.

I love Cool Runnings, but it hits all the notes you expect an underdog sports movie to hit.  It’s delightful, mostly because of vague memories of the movie I have from my childhood, and it’s supremely innocent, full of the accompanying charm of a feel-good story.  But still, what is there to say about it?

The movie most definitely yada yada’s the Jamaican team’s rise to the Olympics.  In the span of 35 minutes we meet the individual characters (three are sprinters, one is a derby car racer), establish their various connections, watch one’s heartbreak as he fails to qualify for the Olympics, then introduce the bobsled idea, follow a training montage, watch the group assemble by overcoming pre-existing beefs, meet their new coach (John Candy), and then arrive in Calgary for the Olympic Trials.

A lot happens, and it happens so quickly.  I think that’s part of the charm.  This is such a straightforward story with so little time between plot points, and it’s not unwelcome because it’s as if the minds behind the movie know that we know where it’s headed, so they just get there as quickly as possible.

Here’s an example.  The main character of the movie, Derice (Leon), is a track start who expects to qualify for the Olympics but doesn’t when he’s tripped by a friendly competitor named Junior.  Derice is devastated, but before we know it we see him complaining to an official, hoping to do the race all over again.  The official says it’s impossible, and Derice stews for only a moment before he sees a photo of his own father with a man played by John Candy.  Who is he?  Derice asks, and the man tells him.  In the span of a couple minutes, Derice goes from true devastation to strange empowerment at the idea of attempting to get to the Olympics by bobsled.

It’s an absurd idea, and the tonal shift is quite abrupt, but we go with it because we already know this is a movie about bobsledding.  I rather the movie get on with it, I suppose, then draw out the deliberation.

The rest of the movie is right down the middle.  We have all the various character subplots, including the coach’s own shame which he must overcome due to a cheating scandal some years before.  There are several training montages, and we meet the asshole opponents (the Swiss, for some reason) who taunt our heroes.

The Jamaican team is a collective fish out of water, and there is an opportunity for some real discussion of individuality and the pitfalls of an insane competitive streak which possesses these Olympic athletes.  All of this is only briefly mentioned because it’s a Disney movie– you know what, let me jump ahead.

There is a happy ending.  The Jamaican team goes from worst to nearly first before their bobsled crashes, followed by an inspirational march in which the team carries their sled to the finish, earning the respect of all the one-dimensional asshole characters in the film.  They didn’t win, but they learned a more important lesson.  They stayed true to themselves, etc.

Derice learns that winning isn’t everything, which is what he needed to learn, and it’s a simple but possibly powerful message.  This is a man who put his entire self-worth on getting to the Olympics.  He has a loving wife in act 1 but never speaks to her again throughout the rest of the film.  He is controlled by this need to win, and the idea of creating a bobsled team just to get to the Olympics is insane.  This type of competitiveness, I imagine, is rampant among Olympic hopefuls.  You dedicate yourself to one sport, maybe even just one routine, and hope that it pays off every four years.  Cool Runnings might be commenting on the idea that competition isn’t everything, but the message is dropped in so briefly that it never resonates.

Another character learns to stand up for himself, and another is the comic relief.  That’s what I got.

Cool Runnings is exactly what I wanted it to be.  I’m not sure if I’m being too negative or if I’m simply trying to break down what I found to be the most interesting angle of the film.  Like I said earlier, it’s hard to write about this.  The story of the Jamaican bobsled team is quite compelling, but it’s all treated as a joke here, and it’s funny.  This is a good movie, but maybe there’s something insincere about making light of something so uniquely beautiful.

Or again, maybe I’m just being unnecessarily negative.  I liked this movie for what it was while wondering if it should’ve been something more.  It’s a flat out comedy, for the most part, but it does get incredibly serious at times, particularly when Derice fails to make the Olympics and when the bobsled overturns on the final turn of the race.  That last crash is brutal.  You watch as their helmets skid against the ice, and when the sled finally comes to a stop, one character’s head just out at such a strange angle that it appears as though it might’ve been separated from his body.  It’s not gruesome, but it’s grim, and it’s a surprisingly dark final moment for a movie that has been so resoundingly positive until then.

I guess to sum up my experience watching this movie, I really enjoyed it, laughed at parts and found it a damn good time, but part of me felt… like I shouldn’t be?  I guess it really is kind of strange, the more I think about it, the way the movie made such a straightforward, nice movie out of something that should’ve been much more unique.  Like Ebert said, it’s a special story made into a movie that follows all the rules.

Up Next: Marathon Man (1976), The Fog of War (2003), Platoon (1986)

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