By Thomas Griffiths (Cardiff)
Cool Runnings is directed by John Turtelaub and stars Leon, Doug E. Doug, Rawle D. Lewis, Malik Yoba and John Candy. It is a film about this small group of Jamaican athletes who want to compete in the Winter Olympics, but are stymied at every single turn by the fact that they are black and come from a country where the sport that they are partaking in doesn’t even happen at all in their country, Jamaica. This is loosely based on a true story about the Jamaican Bobsled Team entering the Winter Olympics for the first time, and there are a series of elements in this film that hint at being created for comedic purposes whilst simultaneously attuning to the theme and purpose of the film.
This movie’s main protagonist is Derrice Bannock, a passionate and idealistic Jamaican runner who is firstly intent on entering the Olympics as a runner to represent his country in the Olympics. I’ll say this right off, Leon is really great as Derrice, because he provides a really sympathetic hero to the movie – you really understand how passionate he is about this sport and what it means to him. Derrice’s confidence and passion for his country and the sport he undertakes is one of the best-realized parts of this entire movie. He eventually tries to assemble his team on Jamaica for a sport that is completely out of place in his country: Bobsledding.
Firstly, I’d like to talk about the other characters in this film. The first is Sanka Coffee, Derrice’s best mate, and he is one of the funniest characters of the lot. He just bursts with energy and with erratic optimism and with a cranky, weird answer for everything. He also starts off the same way as Derrice, but as a pushcart champion. He is also extremely enthusiastic about pushcarting at first and follows Derrice into bobsledding. He provides most of the energetic comedic lines – I can never forget the way he always said ‘Ice? Ice? You mean winter, as in ice…you mean winter as in igloos, and Eskimos, and penguins, and…ice?’. He is just such an adorable oblivious idiot. There’s also Junior Beville, who is played by Rawle D Lewis, and he is great as a character – he’s often called ‘rich boy’ throughout the movie, and he struggles with the fact that he wants to be something special but is stymied by his domineering father’s expectations, and that’s a very real character.
Also Malik Yoba as Yul Brenner is fantastic, and he is essentially the aloof, muscular, imposing badass in this movie. He is really, really cool at so many points in this movie, and most of the stuff that’s comedic about him is his size and the fact that he is bald – Sanka commonly refers to him as ‘that big baldy, I forgot to dust your head’. He also has a really cool way of saying ‘No problem, man’, and one of his best lines in the movie is ‘This doesn’t mean that I like you’. These are all a bunch of complete misfits in an island used to being subservient to the needs and insistences of the rest of the world.
I’ve left one person out so far: John Candy as Irvin Blitzer. This guy was fan-tastic in this movie, I absolutely loved him. John Candy was one of the comedy big-hits in his day, and he is still considered amazing, but he really shines in this movie because his character is the darkest and most complicated and tragic of the lot. He plays a man who was once a bobsledder himself, until he disgraced his team in a selfish effort to win – he put weights into the end of the sled so that it would go faster. He disgraced himself, his team, his family his coach, and outlawed himself to Jamaica and distanced himself from the sport he once loved. Now, everyone else in this movie seems to hate him or have the wrong end of him – somebody says at the start of the movie ‘He’s here…unless he’s been arrested or shot’. The general point is that his mistake disgraced him in every way possible.
This movie is one of the funniest 1990s movies I have ever seen, and that’s because its jokes and explosive moments of comedy stem entirely from the premise of Jamaicans joining the Winter Olympics, and they all have personal quirks of their own. Derrice is a mature and straightforward person of determination. Sanka is a stupid, energetic explosion of quips and teases. Yul Brenner is a big tough guy with an aggressive attitude. And Junior Beville is the Rich Boy with a timid nature and a constant adherence to his father’s demands. They all collide because of these quirks. Also, the comedic timing in this movie is perfect and completely appropriate to the situation.
One of the major themes of this movie is racism, which is really weird because they dig really deep into this theme despite it being a kid’s comedy. When they get to America, they are absolutely hated on by the people around them – when they enter the track for the first time, everything just stops and there are people staring at them, incredulously, they are even tormented by one of the other teams at some points in the movie. They are also opposed by the people who run the Olympics, who change the rules and the scores they need to qualify, anything to keep them from competing because they’re not used to black people competing in something as global as the Olympics.
Every main character in this movie goes through a character arc of sorts at some points in this movie, which is integral to the theme of success and redemption in this movie. Derrice starts off as overconfident and overenthusiastic about the sport and representing his country, but later in the movie he is deadly serious about proving himself to the people of the world that Jamaicans can be athletes the way people don’t want them to be. Sanka’s character arc is when he thinks, at first, he’s the big boss because he’s the champion pushcart driver in Jamaica, and only to realize that bobsledding is a different sport with different disciplines, and actually getting on with Yul Brenner. Yul Brenner’s arc is essentially just getting on with others.
The biggest arc, though, is Irv Blitzer’s: his arc is based on him redeeming for the mistake he made in his last Olympics, which is brought to him throughout the movie. There is this really heartbreaking scene in the movie where he confronts the board members about them disqualifying the team from the Winter Olympics. He snaps at his old coach, Kurt, and then tirades that, sixteen years ago, he made the biggest mistake of his life – he cheated. He admits that he was stupid and self-serving and embarrassed his country and family and himself, and that he forgot that the Olympics was more about participation than victory, and that people had the right to represent their country, whether they came in first or last. He uses this to insist that Derrice and the boys have earned the right to represent their country.
All that is left to say about this film is that it absolutely defines the meaning of sport, while disguising it with powerful emotions and casual humour – the idea that ethnicity does not mean anything in true competition, it is not all about winning (As John Candy says in the film ‘A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it you’ll never be enough with it’) and teamwork is integral in a sport like bobsledding. Also, it preaches self-confidence (As Yul Brenner says, ‘I see pride! I see power! I see a badass mother who won’t take no crap off of nobody!) and being fair-minded and devoted to one’s goals in the right way.
This film is a great example of comedy and sport forged into one film, and it succeeds fantastically in terms of character development, musical score, historical and cultural significance and being a really funny movie.
I’m rating it 9/10