Bobsledding is not exactly the first thing anyone would associate with Jamaica, but it's precisely the unlikeliness of that combination that fuels "Cool Runnings" (citywide), a sweet-natured, high-spirited comedy, that rare movie that plays effectively to all ages. Even rarer, it celebrates genuine sportsmanship, placing the emphasis back on how the game is played in the face of the winning-is-everything philosophy that permeates every aspect of contemporary life.
"Cool Runnings," which takes its title from a Jamaican slang expression meaning "peaceful journey," was inspired by an actual event, but director Jon Turteltaub and his several writers have taken liberties so creatively that we're left with the good feeling that if the story didn't exactly happen this way it should have.
Tall, handsome, cheerful but absolutely determined track star Derice Bannock (Leon) has every reason to believe he'll qualify for the Olympic tryouts when fellow competitor Junior Bevil (Rawle D. Lewis) accidentally trips him. Derice's late father, also a track star, had as a friend an American who competed in bobsledding in the 1972 Olympics and today is a low-life Kingston bookie. Never mind that Derice has never seen a bobsled, let alone snow, or that the bookie, Irv (John Candy), is somewhat less than enthused to serve as a coach, putting together a Jamaican bobsledding team to compete in the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988.
Produced by Dawn Steel, who has nurtured the project since she was Columbia's head of production, "Cool Runnings" swiftly gets its thoroughly enjoyable show on the road. Derice and Junior are joined by Derice's pal Sanka Coffee (Doug E. Doug), whose Jamaican-style pushcart will be turned into a sled, and the brooding, shaven-headed Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba), a muscular young man with a fierce longing to escape Jamaica and its poverty.
The sledding really gets tough in Calgary, and not just because the temperature is 25 degrees below zero. For reasons the Jamaicans, who are themselves treated as a joke and even subjected to all-out racism, do not yet know, Irv is greeted with more coldness than the weather. "Cool Runnings" has an abundance of opportunities to cheer for the underdog, and it deftly hedges its bets in involving us further in the redemption of the troubled Irv, clearly a man with a past.
It also leaves us with the feeling that Turteltaub hasn't missed a beat or a nuance in bringing an exceptional script to the screen. In these fortuitous circumstances, not only do the four actors playing Jamaicans emerge as engaging, well-nigh irresistible personalities but also Candy, in the pivotal role, couldn't be better in one of the most complex portrayals he's ever created. Irv is as sad as he is funny, but he's also got guts and wit. When the script calls for Irv to do some all-stops-out grandstanding, Candy is your man to get away with it.
For a light-hearted, frequently hilarious film, "Cool Runnings" (rated PG for mild language and brief violence) touches adroitly on such serious matters as national pride, self-respect and endemic poverty. The bobsledding sequences are terrifically exhilarating, but the key moment in this handsome, intelligent film occurs in a quiet time when Irv tells Derice that "If you're not enough without a Gold Medal, you're not enough with it."
Leon Derice: Bannock
Doug E. Doug: Sanka Coffee
Rawle D. Lewis: Junior Bevil
Malik Yoba: Yul Brenner
John Candy: Irv
A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Director Jon Turteltaub. Producer Dawn Steel. Executive producers Christopher Meledandri, Susan B. Landau. Screenplay by Lynn Siefert and Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg. Story by Siefert, Michael Ritchie. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Editor Bruce Green. Costumes Grania Preston. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Stephen Marsh. Art director Rick Roberts. Set decorator Lesley Beale. Sound Larry Sutton. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG (for mild language and brief violence).