COOL RUNNINGS (1993)

  • Director: Jon Turteltaub
  • Writers: Screenplay by Lynn Siefert, Tommy Swerdlow, and Michael Goldberg, Story by Lynn Siefert and Michael Ritchie
  • Starring: John Candy, Leon Robinson, Doug E. Doug, Rawle D. Lewis, and Malik Yoba
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Disney Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Welcome to our 2021 Summer Games Virtual Film Festival, in which we get ready for the upcoming Olympics with a week of Olympics-themed features. I have been very, very into the idea of the Olympics since I was a little kid. I have all the things memorized that you can memorize, and I thought I’d seen all the movies about it you could see, though this has not turned out to be fully the case. These will be kind of a weird Olympics, which is a little disappointing, but in our Virtual Film Festival, there will be fans in the stands, and the truly glory will not be in the winning, but in the taking part.

Our first feature is Cool Runnings, something of a sleeper live-action hit for Disney in 1993. It tells the story of the 1988 Jamaican Bobsled team, which became something of a sensation at Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. Sort of bizarrely, I’d say, the movie bears pretty much no resemblance to the actual events that took place only five years earlier, except for the basic idea of a bobsled team made up of aspiring sprinters from Jamaica. Despite being supposedly based on a true story, absolutely none of the characters in this movie appear to be based on real people, nor did basically anything that happens in this movie actually happen. Imagine if you did this today, and the guys who were actually on the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team had Twitter accounts. It’s kind of insane.

Anyway, the movie follows a sprinter named Derice Bannock (Leon Robinson, somewhat hilariously billed only as “Leon”) who falls in the Track & Field Olympic Trials and decides to attempt to go the Winter Olympics in bobsled after he sees an old photograph, despite the fact that, you know, Jamaica completely lacks snow and ice. He recruits a washed up American coach, played by the great John Candy, and a team of other sprinters who didn’t make the cut. One of them is his friend, “the best pushcart driver in Jamaica” (Doug E. Doug), one of them is the son of one of the island’s richest men (Rawle D. Lewis) who wants to send him off to work at an accounting firm in Miami, and the last member is an angry bald guy whose only name in the movie is “Yul Brenner” (Malik Yoba). 

They show up at the Olympics, where they are derided by the other teams, who think they will make the sport into a joke (in reality all the other teams supported the Jamaicans, but that wouldn’t be as good for the story I guess). Their lives are further complicated by the revelation that John Candy’s character had his Gold Medal taken away for cheating many years earlier (again, this is the sort of plot point that would entirely not work in the age of the internet). They crash and finish last, but earn the respect of their competitors. At that point, as with all good sports movies, the movie realizes it is in need of no denouement whatsoever, and abruptly ends.

To me this sounds like I’m describing an absolutely terrible movie, but actually I think I’d say that, while not especially memorable in any particular way, it’s all actually pretty fun and charming. Today, this would either be a straightforward drama, like Miracle, or it would be a completely over-the-top comedy, like Blades of Glory. In 1993, it could be vaguely a comedy while still taking itself seriously in the end. In fact, the script was apparently for a straight drama at one point in production, but everyone involved agreed it wasn’t working and went in a different direction. For every successful movie that is the singular vision of an iconic director, there is one like this, where the film is the result of a strange alchemy of many studio notes and drafts from several different screenwriters. Sometimes this can lead to disaster, but here it all does work in the end.

Cool Runnings may seem fairly small and inoffensive as a movie, but it was a very big deal for everyone involved because it made over $150 million on a budget of approximately $17 million. Among those whose career got a big boost from the movie was director Jon Turteltaub, the son of a writer for Sanford & Son, who had his first major hit with the film. His subsequent career as a director has included While You Were Sleeping, both National Treasure movies, and The Meg, all of which were big hits. He also directed 2000’s The Kid, starring Bruce Willis, which is a serious candidate for the worst movie I’ve ever seen in a movie theater (or in that case, a drive-in), and I say that as someone who was taken by friends to multiple Twilight installments at a dollar theater in Columbus, Ohio.

The appeal of Cool Runnings comes partly from this group of basically good guys learning to be nice to each other. We will have other movies in this Virtual Film Festival that try to give the idea of what it is like to participate in athletic competition, running or speeding down a mountain. Cool Runnings is not particularly interested in what makes its characters tick. These are people who deserve to prove themselves, want to prove themselves, decide to prove themselves, and then prove themselves. In that way, the movie is weirdly successful in getting to the heart of the whole phenomenon with the Jamaican bobsled team. It isn’t about the winning, but about the taking part.                                      

3 thoughts on “COOL RUNNINGS (1993)

  1. One thing that makes this movie great is that John Candy – who almost always played the funny guy – gets to play the straight man and is really good at it. I also love the scene where they arrive in Calgary and experience cold for the first time.

    Liked by 1 person

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