During the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the Jamaican team was referenced in regards to Cool Runnings, which was released in the fall season of 1993 showcasing the 1988 team that competed in Calgary.
Walt Disney Pictures produced it and there is a lot of Disney elements in the story as it’s a mostly fictionalized account of the Jamaican bobsled team that came literally out of nowhere to compete. The team faces both criticism in their native land as well as in Canada but overall becomes popular.
If you’ve seen a sports story, this movie has so many elements of the same stories, that it can almost write itself. Regardless, the movie still holds up almost 30 years after it was initially released.
Sadly, this was the last movie released while John Candy was still alive and less than six months later, he had passed away while filming Wagons East. I think that has helped make the movie more popular over the years.
But the story itself is inspirational if not very common. It focuses on Derice Bannick, (Leon Robinson), a Jamaican educator and sprinter who has been training for the 100 meter dash for the 1988 Summer Olympics. At the trials, Derice is tripped up by another competitor Junior Bevil (Rawlie D. Lewis), which causes another competitor, Yul Brynner (Malik Yoba) to fall as well.
With Derice’s hopes dashed, he goes to the Jamaican Olympic Association for some reconsideration, only to discover a picture of his late father, an Olympic runner himself, with a young man Irv Blitzer (Candy) was a bobsled gold medalist. Not wanting to wait four more years, Derice and his friend, Sanka Coffie (Doug E. Doug), seek out Blitzer after learning he now lives in Jamaica.
Sanka is a pushcart driver and they realize that the bobsled is no different. But they need more players and Blitzer as their coach.
At this point, I’m puzzled as why the filmmakers felt the Jamaicans had to have funny names. Sanka is really the comic relief of the team and Doug does his best stuff at getting some laughs when they arrive in Calgary where none of them are used to subfreezing temperatures and other cultures such as line dancing at a country western bar. I think Yoba was named Yul Brynner because there’s a few references to him being big and bald.
Another question I was left to ponder if why the association didn’t have all runners retake the race when it looks like aside from Derice, Junior and Yul, there were three other runners who all qualified. I’m not real sure what the rules are but if one player can accidentally stumble and cause others to trip or fall affecting their changes, it just doesn’t seem right.
I feel this is for three reason. One, it’s to make the head of the association into somewhat of an antagonist as he doesn’t want to support the team leading Junior to sell his car to help the team’s expenses. It’s also used to show the animosity between Junior and Yul throughout the movie up until the third act when they become friends. And three, it foreshadows the team’s crash on the slopes at Calgary at the end.
There are the typical montages in Jamaica as they get ready as they try to raise funds. Then, when they get to Calgary, there’s the typical looks of disbelief from others that Jamaicans are competing in a winter sport, even though they don’t have a real sled with them or the uniforms.
In Calgary, Derice and others learn that Blitzer isn’t too well liked among the Olympic officials, mostly by his old coach, Kurt Hemphill (Raymond J. Barry) who does his best to disqualify the team. Years before, Blitzer had his medals taken away as he was disqualified when it was learned he weighed down the sled.
The Jamaicans also find themselves criticized and mocked mostly by the Swiss team, who is favored to take the gold. Derice begins to look to the Swiss as inspiration. And of course, there’s the moment when Sanka stops being funny for a second and gives Derice the pep talk he needs about being himself and being Jamaican.
Like I said, there’s a lot of typical elements in this movie. Junior and Yul argue but eventually become friends especially after Yul observes Junior finally telling off his overbearing father, who wants him to work at a Miami bank instead of compete on the team. And the father shows up at their final competition in full support of his son and the team.
Derice and Blitzer have tension because he knows about the cheating but in the end, they become closer. After they crash, the Swiss, who have been the most unsupportive, actually begin to applaud the team in a slow-cap as they walk over the finish line. Even Hemphill finally applauds the team and Blitzer for their endurance.
But at the heart of the story is that athletes were once considered an example of the nobility of human beings. And the Olympics typically choose non-professional who sometimes have to make the trips on their own dime. The Olympics represent those who want to compete for love of the sport, not for the love of a big payoff.
Also, the movie explores the realization that things and people change. As Yul tells Junior why people don’t like them, “They’re always afraid of something different.” As we’re seeing already with this year’s Oympics in Tokyo, the Norway women’s volleyball team wanting to wear shorts instead of bikini bottoms resulting in them being fined. But the men’s team can wear shorts.
Cool Runnings took a lot of liberties with the actual story. There was no Irv Blitzer nor any other characters on the team. Yes, they were disqualified but many people appealed. However, unlike in the movie, the team was never really a good contender for a medal as they didn’t perform well after the first two matches. On the third day of competition, the sled did crash but not because of mechanical issues but because the driver was inexperienced with the excess speed and regressing the turn too high caused it to become unstable and top-heavy before it toppled on its left side.
Team member Nelson Chris Stokes said everything happened so fast that he “felt a bump” when they were tipped and didn’t realized they were on their sides until they could smell the fiberglass of their helmets friction-burning the ice for reportedly 2,000 feet before they stopped. They still received applause but didn’t carry the sled across the finish line. There was a fourth day for competition but they didn’t run that. The team had slow times and was second to last. Director Jon Turteltaub actually used real footage of the crash, even though edited, in the movie.
There was also a two-man sled competing. Also, neither team were initially shunned by other competitors at Calgary but many people were very friendly and supportive of them. But sometimes that doesn’t make for good storytelling.
The accents are almost as bad. It seems that many actors just watched that Cosby Show episode where Denise and her boyfriend watch a reggae music video and do their “Hey Mon” accents.
But the movie does showcase some good acting by Candy which makes you sadder that his life ended when it did and his last movies weren’t well received. Even the TV movie Hostage For a Day, he directed which aired less than two months after his death, was poorly received and it’s forgettable.
Both Doug and Yoba went on to find better success in TV. Doug appeared alongside Cosby in Cosby.
But this movie still lives on and times have changed as it’s received better reviews over the years.