John Candy was without a doubt one of the greatest comedic performers of the 20th century. His lovable persona captured the hearts of millions of cinema goers and the day he departed our world he left a huge void. That was a terribly sad day indeed but with sadness comes joy and although no longer with us he leaves behind some true gems. Cool Runnings is one such gem - a film about love and determination in the face of discrimination, not only from the point of Jamaica but also of Candy’s central figure too.
Based upon Jamaica’s first entry into the Winter Olympics during 1988’s Canadian hosted event, Cool Runnings tells the story of four athletes who shared the same dream and made Olympic history.
When Derice Bannock (Leon) fails to qualify for the 100 metres, thus losing the chance to represent his country as a result of an accidental trip, he decides to fight on and challenge the judges’ decision. Failing to convince him to re-try the race Derice is left with only one more option. After seeing a photograph of his father standing next to the great Olympic bobsled coach, Irving “Irv” Blitzer (John Candy) he decides to track him down after learning that he resides on the same island. When Derice and his friend Sanka (Doug E. Doug) find Irving they see a washed up, overweight has been whose glory days are long behind him. Despite their best efforts they fail to convince him to join their team as coach but eventually, after a few choice words Derice manages to get Irv on board and so the quest to find two more team members gets underway. After a ropey introduction to the event that is bobsleighing in front of an eager crowd, only two people remain - Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba) and Junior Bevil (Rawle D. Lewis), the two other sprinters that fell alongside Derice. The only task left for them now is to learn what a bobsled is and adjust to the freezing climate that they’ll soon face, as well as come up with $20,000 in sponsorship money. Along the way they will face many hardships but their spirit shall not be defeated.
When Devon “Pele” Harris was recently interviewed with regards to his career and the movie adaptation of his story he reflected positively on the way that the film tackled Jamaica’s entry into the Olympics. Their sponsorship troubles were difficult and it is fact that the team badly crashed at the Calgary run but that’s about as far as things went. Disney had a whole different attitude and wanted the film to depict the stereotypical view of Jamaicans and see to it in a way which would depict racial tensions but above all provide solid family entertainment. And that’s what Cool Runnings is. For all its dramatic licensing it remains a great family film, filled with enough humour to please. I suppose the main problem that people might have with it is its super stereotypical characters, for example the villainous Germans who belittle out Jamaican heroes and several team members who must learn to co-exist if they’re to ever get anywhere, but in typical Disney fashion all that turns around by the end. Its clear themes are echoed amidst triumph, whether our heroes win or not. The film suggests that neither matters, it’s all about taking part and finding acceptance, however clichéd that might sound.
With all of this comes a ridiculously predictable plot but in the end who really cares? Director, Jon Turteltaub had made his most accomplished film by that time in the form of Cool Runnings and he uses several simple devices to achieve his goal, playing on emotions yet keeping everything to a minimum. Even Candy’s speech toward the end in front of a table of selective judges (which you had to see coming in some form) is handled marvellously and doesn’t border on over the top sentimentalism, rather John Candy admirably pushes his performance adding that needed conviction. As for the rest of the lead players, they manage to flesh out their characters enough to have us like them and cheer them on, so Turteltaub can indeed be praised for having a solid relationship with his fellow cast and crew. If anything its simplicity should work toward a greater good and in the end it's these basics that carry the film further and allow us to have fun, while delivering a simple message.
And how could one not love the soundtrack that regularly beats throughout? Cool Runnings is filled with some wonderful takes on classics songs such as Talking Heads’ “Wild, Wild Life” and even Jimmy Cliff provides a new recording of “I can See Clearly Now” - a perfectly uplifting song to an emotional ending which soon sets off the tears. With Hans Zimmer onboard to provide a healthy, adrenaline fuelled score that will have you rooting for Jamaica all the way, there’s little to worry about.
Walt Disney/Buena Vista’s Region 2 DVD is knocking on a quite few years now - a bare bones affair with not even an accompanying trailer. Still, I suppose it’s the best we’re ever likely to see, unless ol’ Disney suddenly gets an uncontrollable urge to release a Special Edition sometime in future. Considering that this particular release has been out since 2001 it can be picked up relatively cheap online, so is well worth tracking down.
Cool Runnings is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is enhanced for wide screen televisions. The print doesn’t look as good as it probably should. The transfer is heavily on the soft side with little detail and there’s the odd speck of dust to be seen, in addition to looking like it went through some heavy filtering. The low bit rate on this DVD5 disc comes with chroma noise which causes the colours to lack definition, black levels and skin tones also suffer as a result, hindered further more by a slight drop in contrast, so in all not a very good effort. This could quite possibly be an up-conversion from the non-anamorphic R1 disc.
As for sound, Disney disappoint, as the box is labelled for having English Stereo and English 5.1 tracks. The reality is that we only get a Stereo option. While this does the job the film could have greatly benefited from a full surround mix, particularly for the great music throughout and bobsleigh races, which sound fine here but there’s only so much the front speakers can carry. Dialogue can be a little light at times but not too bad. Overall a pleasant enough listening experience if not a little subdued.
Cool Runnings was John Candy’s last great film. Sure it takes several liberties with its content and that’s to be expected, but no matter how much it might change the actual events its sentiments are very real. It remains a thoroughly entertaining and uplifting film, which I hope might one day see far better treatment on DVD.
Acknowledgements go to www.jamaicans.com for their interview with Devon “Pele” Harris - February 2005.