' ' Cinema Romantico: Cool Runnings

Monday, August 27, 2012

Cool Runnings

The first Olympics (Summer or Winter) that I ever watched were Calgary’s Winter Games of 1988. Thus, they (along with the Sydney Summer Games of 2000, for reasons I won’t get into) are my favorite Olympics. Of course, if you are old enough to recall the XV Winter Olympic Games, you might recall they were famous, amongst many other achievements, for featuring a curious outlier known as the Jamaican Bobsled Team. I was 10. I knew nothing about Jamaica. All I knew was four dudes from a tropical island (average temperature: 81 F) were going to ride a sled in the Winter Olympics. They were my boys!

Inevitably Disney put together a Jamaican Bobsled Team movie, “Cool Runnings”, a few years later (1993). I saw it opening weekend, which I recall because my friend and I were let in for free by the usher who doubled as a malcontent hurdler on our “vaunted” Waukee High Track Team. (Just for fun I looked up the other movies released into theaters that weekend. They included “Malice”, which I thought was humorous because if you asked 2012 Nick if on opening weekend he would rather see the New Disney Movie or the New Nicole Kidman movie, he would answer the New Nicole Kidman Movie 100 times out of 100.) I loved it. Of course, I did. How could I not? It was so easily inspirational and it starred Doug E. Doug as a pushcart driver named Sanka Coffie. Sanka Coffie! This was a time in my life where I was obsessed with authoring a saga centered around a global strife between disparate coffee factions. And this guy’s name was Sanka. Coffie.

Re-visiting it nearly 20 years later as a wannabe cineaste, I figured I knew what would happen. I would be gravely disappointed in its rampant factual inaccuracies and in its pedantic sports movie clichés. It was, after all, loosely based on a true story. And sure, the Olympic trials are somehow held roughly nine months before the actual Olympics (preposterous!) and, yes, the main character has apparently learned how to drive a bobsled on a rectangular go-kart with a steering wheel even though bobsleds, rest assured, do not have steering wheels, and so on and so forth, but perhaps because of the glint of nostalgia or because I was in a happy mood simply from watching it I merely smiled all this away as habits of the genre.

The film features talented Jamaican sprinter Durice Bannock (a personable Leon) being denied his shot on possible Olympic glory when he is tripped and falls in the make or break Trials race. In the aftermath, fortuitously, he learns his Gold Medal winning father had been recruited by American bobsled coach Irv Blitzer (John Candy) to use his blinding speed for the sled’s push-start. Thus, Durece determines to track down Blitzer and make the Olympics by a more wintry means. He teams up with Sanka, his best pal, and the two other sprinters who fell in the same race, the uniquely named and muscular grouch Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba) and the “rich mama’s boy” Junior Bevil (Rawle D. Lewis), resembling a Jamaican Carlton Banks.

As you might expect, no one believes in them. Not their countrymen, not the head of the Jamaican Athletic Association, not the villainous East German bobsled driver (“You have no business here, Jamaica”), certainly not Junior Bevil’s well-to-do Pop who actually shows up in Calgary to take Junior home AFTER Junior has marched at the opening ceremonies which probably qualifies him for Meanest Dad Ever if not for Raylan Givens’ Dad who is played by Raymond J. Barry who plays Kurt Hemphill, American member of “The Alliance”, and Irv’s old enemy who seeks to conspire by any means necessary to keep these Caribbean hoodlums outta the Calgary games. Irv, you see, years ago hid weights in the front of his bobsled to make it go faster, thereby causing Kurt and the rest of the bobsled community to shun Irv. And so Irv has come not just to coach his team but to make amends: “I made winning my whole life, and when you make winning your whole life, you have to keep on winning, no matter what.”

Clearly “Cool Runnings” wants to be a commentary on and an evocation of the so-called Olympic Spirit. But it seems to me this could have been demonstrated more strongly by sticking to the facts of the story. The Jamaican Bobsled were not pariahs. Fellow bobsledders encouraged and helped and provided them with equipment. THAT’S the Olympic Spirit, right? Not a brawl in a Canadian saloon. And yet……

The tone of the film, its sweet enthusiasm, in spite of the movie’s resorting to all the standard tropes, embodies that so-called Olympic Spirit – yes, even if the so-called Olympic Spirit is probably mostly a myth because enthusiasm this sweet is probably mostly a myth, too. This, as it happened, was the final film of Candy’s to be released before his too-soon passing in early 1994. Those released posthumously looked good on paper – “Wagons East”, a disgruntled wagon train that turns back around, and “Canadian Bacon”, a fake invasion of U.S. is “fended off” by a few enterprising individuals – but were not much to look at. It’s a real shame Candy could not have tagged his career with as something as likable and innocent as “Cool Runnings.”

There is a wonderful moment after the film has dipped into a valley and is climbing back toward a peak that Sanka Coffie hands Irv his colorful Rastafarian hat and Irv nods and puts it atop his dome. It’s corny, sure, but in my quixotic heart I can’t help but envision this as a perfect image of the Olympic spirit, stronger than any flame in any cauldron, mightier than any laminated motto. John Candy in a Rastafarian hat – Americans and Jamaicans co-mingling and, eventually, East Germans leading slow claps.


Andy Buckle said...

I love Cool Runnings. I find it very entertaining. Haven't watched it in a few years but I'm confident it will slice through my changed tastes and still offer up the delights of old...

Nick Prigge said...

Oh, it will for sure. It's just one of those movies that in spite of how down and out you may feel will lift you right back up.