In the early 90s, Disney cornered the market on feel-good underdog sports films. The Mighty Ducks came first in 1992 with the tale of a young hockey team coached to excellence by Emilio Estevez, then came the one-two punch the following year with Rookie of the Year and Cool Runnings. Both films tell the tale of an unlikely rise to fame; the former about a 12-year-old becoming an elite baseball pitcher following a freak accident, and the latter about the stellar true story of the first ever Jamaican bobsleigh team. The commonality between these two? The venerable John Candy.
Cool Runnings is the loose retelling of the infamous true story, though several details have been changed from reality. Here, Derice, Junior, and Yul (played by Leon Robinson, Rawle D. Lewis, and Malik Yoba respectively) are Jamaican sprinters who failed to make the Summer Olympics and set out to make it to any Olympics, regardless of season. They’re joined by Derice’s best friend Sanka (Doug E. Doug), Jamaica’s finest pushcart driver and set out on their seemingly impossible quest to qualify for the Winter Olympics. Candy joins the party as Irv Blitzer, a composite character of the real-life Jamaican team’s trainers, who reluctantly agrees to coach the team. This film would tragically prove to be one of the final films released during the legendary comic actor’s lifetime.
What is it about an underdog? Throughout cinema history, films about underdogs – within sports or elsewhere – manage to strike a chord with audiences the world over. Rocky went onto win Best Picture in 1977, The Karate Kid became a cult classic, but Dodgeball (2004) and Blades of Glory (2007) arguably ended the underdog genre with their pitch perfect parodies. 2015’s Winter Olympics-set Eddie the Eagle may not have revived the genre, but was an excellent recent addition, none-the-less. From the unlikelihood of success to the band of misfits having to come together, there are numerous factors that contribute to what exactly makes a good film about an underdog. Cool Runnings ticks most of the boxes.
Early on, these characters have never tasted defeat. The sprinters can run 100m in 10 seconds and Sanka is a back to back pushcart champion. Director John Turtletaub recognises this, and the warm, celebratory feeling of the introduction draws us into their world as some of Jamaica’s brightest hopes for the future of their national sport. By placing them on their respective pedestals, their fall from grace and experiences at the bottom of the barrel are only heightened when they get to Calgary for the 1988 Winter Olympics. They’re the outsiders in every sense of the word, to the point where multiple people question Irv when he declares their efforts to qualify. Their first meeting with their competitors in Calgary is one of heightened tension, framed like a Wild West standoff with the icy Canadian air the only sound…until Sanka’s trademark knack for lightening the mood strikes. The team are the joke of the start of the games, earning international attention as their efforts end in one embarrassing disaster after another.
Still, Cool Runnings isn’t about their trials and tribulations at the Winter Olympics. Cool Runnings is far more about the human spirit, the formation of unlikely friendships, and never giving up as much as it is about laughing at the ridiculous concept of hot weather athletes attempting cold weather sports. Junior and Yul are the most combative of the team and their combustible relationship frequently proves to be an obstacle to their success. The scene at a local bar, when the two finally settle some of their differences, spawned an iconic catchphrase that summarises the film’s message perfectly:
“I see pride. I see power. I see a badass mother who don’t take no crap from nobody.”
The Jamaican bobsleigh team faced an uphill battle from the start, but they didn’t care. They achieved their dream of making the Olympics (albeit in a roundabout way!), and the pride they feel as they represented their country on the global stage was felt by the team and their friends and family back home. The scenes of their compatriots watching the event on tiny bar television screens fill us all with unabashed joy as the team’s triumph against adversity (relatively speaking) becomes an international phenomenon.
Cool Runnings started out life as a much more serious sports drama, but the film’s script remained in development hell for several years before they changed course and made it into a comedy. One must imagine that the initial draft touched more upon some more of the racially charged aspects of the film that are only briefly touched upon, once during an altercation with the East German bobsleigh team and another during a frustrated Irv’s rant at a board meeting (“Oh, pardon me, I didn’t realise that four black guys in a bobsled could make you blush.”). Still, you’d be hard pressed to find someone to argue that Cool Runnings would’ve been better off without the humour.
Cool Runnings earns its plaudits as a fine addition to the sports film pantheon of greats. With a winning ensemble, a tale of against all odds success, and a myriad of catchphrases that are referenced even today (“Sanka, ya dead? “Yah man…”), Cool Runnings is a triumph.
Sing it with me now: some people say, you know they can’t believe… Jamaica, we have a bobsled team!