Remember Cool Runnings? You know, the goofy simplistic 90’s movie about the Jamaican bobsled team? It’s way better than you remember, and here’s why.
They got the sports right
There are so many sports movies where the actual sports action scenes are terrible. You can always tell when the actor has never shot a basketball (High School Musical) or swung a golf club (The Legend of Bagger Vance). The bobsled scenes in Cool Runnings are legitimately exciting. They look realistic, and the direction gives a real sense of the speed and danger of the sport.
It’s quotable as hell
● Coach Irv: “A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.”
● Junior: “I see pride! I see power! I see a bad-ass mother who don’t take no crap off of nobody!”
● Derice: “Peace be the journey.”
Proper use of the race card
For a family-friendly movie, it dealt with racism in a surprisingly effective way. The team has to put up with a number of setbacks due to their race, but it’s almost never explicitly stated. Instead, it presented their difficulties as a consequence not just of being a different race, but of being different at all. Surely they faced discrimination when the board decided to disqualify the Jamaicans even after they had met the standards, but they also faced it when their own countrymen refused to support them financially and laughed in their faces. It taught the broader lesson that judgement of others for superficial reasons is wrong no matter what the reason is, whether it’s the color of their skin or the choice to play a sport you don’t understand.
Surprisingly plausible premise
The central sporting premise of the movie is kinda interesting. What would happen if you got the fastest sprinters in the world to push a bobsled down the ice? Since there are so many jokes in the film, you wouldn’t expect an audience to take the sports seriously. The tone is more similar to Airbud or The Mighty Ducks than it is to Miracle or Friday Night Lights, but it still managed to operate through a central ideology that doesn’t require the audience to believe in a basketball-playing dog or that Emilio Estevez was once a star hockey player. We can at least imagine a scenario in which sprinters could also be good at push-starting a sled. It’s not like The Karate Kid, where we’re supposed to believe that a guy who waxes cars is also impossibly good at blocking punches. Couple this sprinter/bobsled theory with a world class sprinting main character who would give anything to be in the olympics, and now you have a dare-I-say plausible premise for a movie about a Jamaican bobsled team.
An extraordinary ending
To understand what makes the ending so great, you have to remember a few things from before. Think back to the start of the film, when Derice (the main character), Junior (the shy one), and Yul (the bald one) are running the 100m qualifying round for Jamaica. It’s the biggest race of their lives, and they trip and fall in front of everyone. But here’s the important part; they give up. Knowing that they have no chance of winning, not one of them stands back up and finishes the race. Why not? We’ll get to that later.
Remember Sanka (the funny one with dreadlocks)? He prides himself on his legendary career as a push cart driver. The only time we see him in a push cart race, he crashes. He licks his wounds and never attempts to get back into the race. The same thing happens again when they first get together as a team. They practice bobsledding in a little sled on wheels on a hill in Jamaica, and how does that scene end? They go off course and crash into a cop car. They never reach the bottom of the hill. They’ve never finished anything! And the reason why they never finish is crucial.
They only care about external approval, and as a result, they define themselves exclusively by their external accomplishments. When Derice tries to convince Irv to coach his team, Irv says no. He says the idea might have worked with Derice’s father Ben, who was a gold medal winning sprinter, but not with Derice. Here’s how Irv describes Ben, “You’re father was one of the toughest competitors I ever saw. (pause) He ran the 100 meters in 10 flat.” To which Derice responds, “Well I run it in 9.9.” Do you see the problem here? He only responded with his external tangible worth. He didn’t interrupt Irv when he said his dad was a tough competitor. He could have easily interrupted earlier and gone on a long rant about how he’s every bit as tough and hardworking and passionate as his dad. Even though all of that’s true, he didn’t say it because he doesn’t view himself that way. He’s only capable of measuring his self worth in tangible ways which will prove that worth to others.
The problem that Derice has is perfectly mirrored by the backstory of Irv. When he was a bobsledder years ago, he cheated to win a gold medal. Winning consumed his personality, and it never brought him the satisfaction he anticipated. Through this example, Derice is able to see Irv as a cautionary “Ghost of Christmas Future” warning.
Now they’re in Canada, racing in front of the whole world. In the final heat of the bobsled, they have a shot at winning a medal. After a lightning fast start, the bobsled starts to break down through no fault of their own. It crashes, and we watch as the team grinds to a halt with actual footage from the real crash in the ‘88 olympics. They lose all hope of winning a medal. They all stay in the sled unmoving for a long moment. They’re not going to finish the race. But something is different this time. They stand up and start carrying the sled down the final stretch.
In all the times they’ve crashed before, they had no reason to finish because they were only racing to win, to prove their worth to others. They’ve grown to understand it’s not important what others might think about such a trivial act as finishing the race that’s already lost. That’s a remarkably consistent emotional through-line for a dopey sports comedy. Finishing the race is something they would do even if there was no one watching. They’re finally completing something to prove their worth to themselves. By proving their fortitude and character to themselves, they in turn earn the respect of all their doubters: Junior’s dad, the mean Finnish guy, Coach Irv, Irv’s old team, and the President of the Jamaican Olympic Committee. And that’s when the slow clap starts. Honestly, it’s the only slow clap in movies that seems appropriate instead of eye-rollingly corny.
All of this happens set to an original sweeping score composed by Hans Zimmer. There’s even a key change in the finale that perfectly reflects the transformation of the team.
And there’s one last great detail about the ending. Before the final race, Sanka says, “All I’m saying, mon, is if we walk Jamaican, talk Jamaican, and *is* Jamaican, then we sure as hell better bobsled Jamaican.” They don’t cross the finish line in the bobsled. They cross it like a sprinter does, on his feet.
Some people might take issue with the ending because that’s not what happened with the real Jamaican bobsled team, but who cares? This ending is so much better than what happened in reality in the same way that the ending to Inglorious Basterds was a thousand times better than the real ending to World War II.
Then it fades out and the credits roll to the tune of “I Can See Clearly Now” by Jimmy Cliff, sending you out with a smile.
Am I just reading way too much into this and picking out details that were probably unintentional? Yeah, but so has every English teacher I’ve ever had, so I’m ok with it.