The travails and triumph of the 1988 Jamaican Olympic bobsled team deliver a highly entertaining combination in “Cool Runnings.” The offbeat, fact-based saga is enlivened by the perfect balance of humor, emotion and insight and should be one of the true sleepers among fall box office releases.
One can now see why producer Dawn Steel tenaciously pursued the subject matter. In addition to its intrinsic novelty, the yarn effortlessly draws us into the spirit of competition and the sheer delight of the Olympian ethos. Unlike most sports-based films, this is one tale with universal appeal.
The filmmakers have taken some dramatic liberties, though the essential facts are intact. Derice Bannock (Leon) is, like his Olympian father, a leading runner in the small island republic. But at the local trials for the 1988 event, he stumbles when another competitor falls in his path, and Derice fails to qualify.
When he vainly appeals to the local board for reinstatement, Derice hears a wild tale of an American gold medal bobsledder living in Jamaica. The man had attempted years ago to recruit Derice’s father for an island team, believing that world-class runners would take to the sport like penguins to ice.
The germ of an idea begins to grow. The runner recruits his friend Sanka (Doug E. Doug) — a go-cart driver — and they go off to convince Irv Blitzer (John Candy), the former Winter Olympian, to coach the fledgling team. Blitzer is coerced into the job, and the team is completed when two other runners scratched from the trials show up.
The idea is preposterous, and were it not for the fact that it actually happened, even cockeyed Hollywood would have taken a pass.
The requisite details for this type of endeavor are much in evidence as Blitzer whips his athletes into form despite a decided absence of snow. Both the local committee and business leaders look upon the pursuit as hilarious if somewhat embarrassing. But the team ekes out enough money to get to Calgary and acquire a barely useable sled cast off by the American team.
Director Jon Turteltaub has a fresh, uncluttered approach to the story that allows its natural warmth and humor to dominate. The classic underdog script provides a positive minority perspective without the usual downside, self-conscious righteousness.
The cast, like their real-life counterparts, work marvelously as a team. Doug provides the comic foil while Leon emerges as a charismatic leader in the type of role that should lead to more prominent work.
Candy gets the opportunity to create a real character and remind us of his facility for pathos — regrettably so rarely employed.
The whole experience is a tonic that’s sure to delight viewers.