Running on Empty

The Jamaican bobsled team's quest at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary captured the world's imagination for a combination of reasons. A big part of the appeal was the sheer improbability of four ragtag guys from a tropical island that hasn't seen a snowflake in a millennium competing in a sport where highly trained teams from mountainous countries with cold climates (Switzerland, Germany, Russia) and cutting-edge technology have traditionally excelled. The dramatic tension was heightened by the danger inherent in hurtling down an icy chute at speeds that would make even Jose Canseco blanche, in a vehicle with fewer safety features than a Yugo. And the refreshing spectacle of a quartet of irreverent black men thumbing their noses at the ultratraditional, lily-white bobsledding establishment provided the crucial element of comic relief. It was great fun, the perfect human-interest story -- at least until the team wiped out on one of their runs and for one sickening moment it looked as though the sledders couldn't possibly have escaped serious injury or even death. When word came back that all four were shaken up but basically okay, an Olympic legend was born.

Unfortunately, Cool Runnings, the Disney-ized version of that legend, exhibits little of the real-life Jamaican bobsled team's audacity, unpredictability, or willingness to flout convention. It has no spunk, in other words. Instead the film takes the basic premise and gives it the standard Hollywood treatment. John Candy, a marginally bankable white actor, is brought in to play the coach and, more important, to give the film a sympathetic Caucasian character to root for. The studios forget the master/slave overtones when there's crossover box-office appeal to consider.

And that box office has been substantial. Cool Runnings has been the "sleeper" comedy of the fall. Just goes to show you that white America's appetite for sports cliches, hokey sentimentality, and nonthreatening racial stereotypes continues unabated. Rarely has the fish-out-of-water angle been exploited so shamelessly and single-mindedly. But then, Disney movies have never been famous for their subtlety or willingness to probe beneath the surface.

To make matters worse, the script is lame, the dialogue insufferable, and the direction listless. The saving grace is the infectious energy and likability of the actors playing the sledders, from Leon (best remembered as the saintly statue who comes to life in Madonna's "Like a Virgin" video) to standup comedian Doug E. Doug. While all of them struggle with their Jamaican accents from time to time (especially Doug), they seem to be enjoying themselves and the feeling is sporadically contagious. And then of course there's Candy, doing his patented crabby fat guy with a heart of gold shtick. Uncle Buck goes to the Olympics.

So you get a predictable retelling of a well-known true story that has none of the real-life adventure's verve or reckless abandon. Unlike the four brave Jamaican men who ventured up to Calgary in 1988, you know exactly what will happen to this Disney vehicle. The filmmakers do not throw in a single unexpected curve or bump, but it crashes nonetheless.

 
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