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‘Cool Runnings’

By Desson Howe
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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They've pulled down the Berlin Wall. The Palestinians and the Israelis are talking peace. But they're still making comedies like "Cool Runnings," in which cartoonish natives scratch their heads and try to make sense of the white world.

In "The Gods Must Be Crazy," a popular precursor to this movie, Kalahari Bushmen tried to understand the deific significance of a Coke bottle fallen from a passing plane. In "Runnings," based on a real-life story, four Jamaicans get the wacky notion to represent their country in bobsledding at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

Thanks to its sun-bleached writing (by a quartet of hacks, including Michael Ritchie), this movie would have to work double time to really offend anyone. But the ghost of Stepin Fetchit is hovering in the tropical ether. It's in those wide-eyed double-take faces, the fast-motion (a la "Gods Must be Crazy"), and the way one of the Jamaican bobsledders tries (unsuccessfully, of course) to hold his overloaded bladder during a particularly bumpy run.

During a heat for entry into Jamaica's Olympic running team, Rawle D. Lewis accidentally trips fellow competitors Leon and Malik Yoba. Three athletes are denied a chance at the gold. But desperate Leon learns a significant piece of information -- the kind from which bad movies are sprung. Former bobsledder and gold medalist John Candy lives on the island. Candy, Leon learns, once tried unsuccessfully to train Jamaican sprinters to be bobsledders. The cogs turn in Leon's mind.

To cut short one of the longest narrative preambles ever filmed, Leon persuades Candy to train a new team, which includes Leon, the two downed athletes and his best friend Sanka (Doug E. Doug). They fly to Canada for the Olympics, where through Candy's begging, badgering and borrowing, they make the qualifying rounds, all the while fighting apres-ski stereotypes from Sweden, East Germany and the Soviet Union.

The characters are delineated with thick crayon edges for family-viewing convenience: Yoba, for example, is a menacing bald guy called Yul Brenner. For some reason (comic, I suspect) he doesn't like to be touched. As for Doug, he's wackily childlike. When they put a bobsledding helmet over his head, he can't see for all the dreadlocks.

"Cool Runnings" consists of two running gags:

x How funny it is for Jamaicans to be in a bobsled team.

x How funny blacks are when they endure cold.

The first joke is funny. But in this movie, that joke is never let alone. The second ties in with those other "jokes," such as blacks' wide-eyed fear of ghosts. When Doug E. Doug arrives in Canada and sees a blizzard outside, he scurries back into the airport terminal and drapes himself in everything he's got -- including the travel bag. His reaction -- a comic conceit from another, less-enlightened age -- isn't amusing so much as sad.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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