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‘Cool Runnings’

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 01, 1993


Jon Turteltaub
Doug E. Doug;
Malik Yoba;
Rawle D. Lewis;
John Candy
Parental guidance suggested

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It was a grand oxymoron: the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. Conceptually unlikely, it was the most intriguing human-interest story to emerge from the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. After a brief incarnation as a beer commercial, this true story is retold, and somewhat retooled, in "Cool Runnings," a wholesome, engaging, frequently hilarious, ultimately inspirational film.

It's a story about underdogs fighting for pride and glory -- on both a personal and national level -- against seemingly insurmountable odds. It's about gaining respect, not just achieving victory. As one of the bobsledders puts it, "Here's to following your dreams."

It is a dream dashed that begins this story, which is loosely based on real events. Derice Bannock (Leon) is a dedicated Jamaican sprinter convinced of his Olympic caliber but sidetracked when he is accidentally tripped during the final Olympic trial and thus disqualified. In conversations with officials, however, Derice learns that an Olympic bobsled champion named Irv (John Candy) had 20 years earlier approached Derice's father, a champion sprinter, at the Olympics with a scheme to capitalize on Jamaica's famed sprinters in a new sport. Nothing happened then and nothing seems likely to happen in 1988, even after Derice finds Irv, now a seedy expatriate bookie living in Jamaica.

Irv is quick to note the problems: "Snow -- you don't have any. Time -- you don't have any. Me -- you don't have me." But Olympic dreams die hard and Derice manages to enlist not only Irv but three other Jamaicans: the runner who tripped him, Junior Bevil (Rawle D. Lewis); another fallen sprinter, Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba); and pushcart derby champion Sanka Coffie (Doug E. Doug). This, then, is the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team, so new to the sport that they initially call it a "billsled."

Terminology, it turns out, is the least of their obstacles. Funds? They don't have any. Support? They don't have any. Ice? They don't have any, except in the refrigerator. Training facilities? They don't have any, making do with a pushcart, dirt roads and sandy beaches. But character? They have plenty.

When the team finally gets to Calgary, it's less culture shock than weather shock: Not even endurance stints in the freezer of an ice cream truck have prepared them for 25 degrees below zero and high winds. They also don't have a vehicle, though Irv manages to hustle up a rickety practice sled.

Not surprisingly, the Jamaicans are treated with incredulity in Calgary ("What country?" asks an official when Irv signs them in). But all the unconventional training begins to pay off as the ice-rasta team overcomes hurdles large and small. The film hints at animosity on the part of racist bob-snobs from several European countries (in fact, other teams were actually helpful to the Jamaicans), but the accent is clearly on the positive (cue up the song "Rise Above It").

Though Candy seems an odd choice to play a former Olympian (unless eating is a demonstration sport), Leon cuts quite a figure as Derice: Long and taut, he exudes the cool confidence and energized grace of a stellar athlete. Doug as the persistent comic relief proves quite lovable. Less is required of Lewis and Yoba, but they acquit themselves well.

The film's title, "Cool Runnings," is doubly apt. In Jamaica it's an expression meaning "peaceful journey" -- and that's clearly what director Jon Turteltaub ("3 Ninjas") has in mind. His Jamaica is family-sitcom clean -- no poverty, no ganja, not even a ganja joke -- and at times resembles the Africa of "The Gods Must Be Crazy." The occasional conflicts are minor and rather easily resolved -- doubters start believing, foes become friendly etc.

The drama of events -- the struggle, the persistence, the payoff -- are served up as lighthearted comedy. There's surprisingly little emphasis on the visceral sport of bobsledding, though you do get enough front-of-sled camera POV to appreciate the courage (or madness) needed to compete here. But the focus is clearly on the human element, on the unbeatable spirit that seems to culminate in Olympic competition. To their credit, the filmmakers didn't defy history and turn the Jamaican bobsled team into medal winners. In truth, it was the world's heart they won.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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