COOL RUNNINGS A film review by Scott Renshaw Copyright 1993 Scott Renshaw
Starring: Leon, Doug E. Doug, John Candy, Rawle E. Lewis, Malik Yoba. Screenplay: Lynn Siefert, Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg. Director: Jon Turtletaub.
You'd think Disney could mail it in by now. "Underdog Makes Good" comedies have been a staple of the studio's live-action repertoire from THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR to GUS to THE MIGHTY DUCKS. That a significant portion of their audience wouldn't notice if they *did* mail it in makes it all the more impressive that they don't. COOL RUNNINGS carries on a tradition of formula comedies exuding good-natured energy, and entertaining more than they have any right to.
As advertised, COOL RUNNINGS tells the story (sort of) behind the first Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. Derice Brannock (Leon) is a sprinter with Olympic dreams whose dream is shattered when he and two other runners stumble during the final qualifying trials. Unwilling to give up on the chance to be an Olympian, Derice considers another sport ... bobsledding. Along with best friend Sanka Coffie (Doug E. Doug), Derice looks up Irving Blitzer (John Candy), a two-time bobsled gold medalist disgraced by a cheating scandal and quietly going to seed in Jamaica. Blitzer reluctantly agrees to coach the team made up of Derice, Sanka and the two other fallen sprinters: surly, bald-headed Yul (Malik Yoba) and passive rich kid Junior (Rawle E. Lewis). They train and head to Calgary for a chance to qualify for the 1988 Winter Games.
Anyone who has ever seen a Disney sports film, or almost any sports film for that matter, can tell you more or less exactly what to expect. The coach will be gruff towards his inept new charges (do you think he'll eventually warm up to them?). There will be a montage of the team in training or playing their sport (do you think they'll keep improving?). There will be a hissable, cartoonish villain who questions our heroes' mettle (do you think he'll get his comeuppance?). No one goes to these films to be overwhelmed by the originality of the story. It's all about positive feeling, and COOL RUNNINGS delivers it. The slapstick training runs are lively, enough so that the youngsters in my audience were screaming with delight. The bobsled footage is superb, and the Olympic village atmosphere is exciting. Jamaica is Disney-fied into an idealized, colorful Paradise replete with grinning waifs and free of most signs of poverty, but it's brightly filmed and after all, this isn't a film which offers much in the way of social commentary.
The performers are responsible for generating most of the charm, each member of the team handling his stock part with aplomb. Leon is a bit stiff but still appealing as the determined team leader. Malik Yuba glowers and grumbles effectively as Yul, and Rawle E. Lewis' Junior is jittery and expressive. Doug E. Doug gets the comic relief role as Sanka, and proves to be a winning presence. The biggest surprise, however, is John Candy. In the past, Candy's name in the credits has been almost as sure a sign of a comedy I'll hate as Mickey Rourke's has been of a drama I'll hate. Here Candy plays the straight man instead of the buffoon, and plays it well. It doesn't take much imagination to buy Candy as a has-been *anything*, but he's more than just serviceable. He plays Blitzer surprisingly understated, even when giving the obligatory inspirational speeches, and allows the rest of the cast to carry most of the comedy.
I could spend plenty of time nitpicking about what COOL RUNNINGS didn't do, or should have done. The real story behind the formation of the team is far less "Hollywood," and that's not the only historical fact with which the film plays fast and loose. The nasty East German bobsledder and the U.S. official with a grudge are both way over the top. But for my money, the most important factor was that I left the theater smiling and feeling uplifted. It's a film about success coming from hard work and determination, and it's a film I would be glad to take a family to see. That's a rarity, and it's worth praise on its own level.
On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 bobsleds: 6.
-- Scott Renshaw Stanford University Office of the General Counsel
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