While inspirational sports narratives and comedies have become increasingly common in cinema now, one may think of Cool Runnings as an atypical film of its time. Previous narratives focusing on sports had frequently featured American favorites like football, basketball, or baseball. Films focusing on the high-stakes world of sporting competitions and personal ambition were aplenty. However, director Jon Turteltaub chose to go in a different direction. Cool Runnings is loosely based on the story of the Jamaican bobsled team that made their debut at the 1988 Winter Olympics, Canada, and returned to compete in subsequent years.
Leon Robinson plays Derice Bannock, an athlete who forms a bobsledding team with three others, when he fails to qualify for the 100 meters race. Guiding this makeshift team on their way is Irving Blitzer (John Candy), a disgraced former medallist. Facing neglect and lack of resources, the story really is all about a group of underdogs who do the best they can to succeed.
Devon Harris, who was among the founders of the real-life team in the 1988 Olympics has said that at the time, nobody thought they could do what they did. “Any normal-minded person would think it’s a crazy, hare-brained idea. I’m not sure what the context could be for it to not to seem like a strange thing,” Harris told Betway in an interview.
He has a point, of course. Jamaica’s sunny shores and the windy, snowy slopes of Canada that are practically indispensable for bobsledding are worlds apart, but they didn’t let that stop them. Cool Runnings doesn’t, either.
Turteltaub forgoes glamor and drama in favor of a lighter touch. The narrative does not sensationalize the world of Olympic athletes. Rather, it brings out the humane and banal elements of such a life, focusing on the work that a sportsperson has to do in order to win. It is grounded in a sense of humility and a search for motivation, even if a few creative liberties are taken. Of course, for the film to work, the team of four, plus Irving, have to be presented as lovable, yet clueless newcomers.
And they are. The group plays off of one another wonderfully. The chemistry between Sanka (Doug E. Doug) and Bannock (Robinson) positively soars, lending credibility and charm to their friendship. Their sense of ambition is also undercut by their desire for a purpose, instead of lofty aims of personal success. It’s the unlikely combination of low-key aspiration and earnest sincerity that, in my opinion, sets it apart from contemporary Hollywood fare in the genre. Neither kitschy, nor high camp, Cool Runnings is an accurate and wholesome rendering of one of sport’s most enduring tropes — the underdog.