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Cool Runnings (1993) Movie Retro Review By John Walsh

Cool Runnings

Director: Jon Turteltaub
Writers: Lynn Siefert (story), Michael Ritchie (story)
Stars: John Candy, Leon, Doug E. Doug, Rawle D. Lewis, Malik Yoba

I’m in the midst of a 90s nostalgia fest at the moment. It was a decade that produced some of my all-time favourites, spanning a variety of genres and so my mind was cast back to 1993, when I was but a small child of just four years old. Cool Runnings, wouldn’t be one of those films that I’d class as an all-time favourite, but it holds a special place in my heart. It was one of the first times I became acquainted with the late, great John Candy and it never fails to whisk me back to my carefree youth of playing on an Amiga and scoffing my grandads fairy cakes. 

It’s follows the well trodden (even then) sports genre, redemption story, that was nailed in the original Rocky, leading to ever diminishing returns as that franchise progressed. It’s apparently based on the real life events of the 1988 Jamaican Bobsled team that captivated the world, but as I’ll get into shortly, that’s not quite correct. 

Derice (Leon Robinson), is a sprinter and an elite one at that, who faces early heartache, failing to make the 1988 Olympic team after a disastrous time trial. Devastated about missing out on his dream, he pins his hopes on putting together a bobsled team and hitting the Winter Olympics. Why? Well, because quick sprinters are a significant part of that sporting disciplines success. He already has a driver in his wacky friend, Sanka (Doug E. Doug), a champion pushcart driver on the island. All he needs is two more athletes and a coach. 

Which brings a certain Mr. John Candy into the proceedings. He plays Irving ‘Irv’ Blitzer, a multiple gold medal winner and disgraced US bobsled coach that’s retreated to the Caribbean to escape his ignominious past. An old friend of Derice’s dad, both him and Sanka hammer him into submission, pleading for him to return to his old life and coach them. That just leaves a recruitment drive for the final two members and the turnout is initially high, that is until the dangers of the sport are highlighted in a film reel, leaving the room deserted. A funny moment that needs to be seen to be appreciated. 

There’s just two men left standing when the dust settles and they share a painful connection with Derice. Junior (Rawle D. Lewis) and Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba), both elite level sprinters in their own right, where involved in the same Olympic trial, with the formers trip ending the dream for all three. 

Now, if that doesn’t give the premise behind the entire story away then nothing will really. The films primary message, outside the multiple redemption arcs, is all about using the disappointments in life to fuel your determination to succeed and improve. They all come together, bonding through the journey, despite their initial differences, bickering and infighting to appear at the 1988 winter games. There’s many an obstacle put in their way, from a ramshackle sled, racial intolerance to a corrupt governing body doing its best to ban the interlopers for having the audacity to besmirch their sport. 

Which brings me onto my next point quite nicely. The events in this film are highly fictional. Like to the point where there’s no discernible connection to reality in any way whatsoever. For instance, the real Jamaicans were pushcart racers, but they weren’t elite level sprinters by any means. They had multiple coaches, none of which were ever banned for cheating. Nor did they use a ramshackle sled, in fact, the USA actually gave them one so they could qualify and there was no hint of intolerance or racism from the East German team like we see in the film. 

Does any of that actually bother me? Nope. It wouldn’t have been anywhere near as enjoyable a film, a redemption story or emotional rollercoaster if it was a faithful depiction. We wouldn’t have got the “I see pride, I see power. I see a badass mother that don’t take no crap off nobody” bathroom scene and the subsequent bar brawl that erupted afterwards. We wouldn’t have had the tension surrounding their reinstatement, the team bonding over the sled painting or the brilliant character of Irv. That would’ve been a travesty and it would’ve  made for an infinitely less enjoyable experience. 

The characters make Cool Runnings the film that it is. With all due respect to the real guys, I doubt they were as ragtag a group of a strange bedfellows as Derice, Sanka, Yul Brenner and Junior. I’m going to call it a leading quartet of actors that excel in bringing these likeable personalities to the screen. They’re all different too and yet together they help each other, slotting together like a game of Tetris. Derice is intelligent, driven and reserved; Sanka is zany, extroverted and loud; Yul is sullen, aloof but has a big heart and is a good guy; finally, Junior is lacking confidence and desperate to find his freedom. He also rich, which proves useful.

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