Thursday, February 25, 2016

Review: "Eddie the Eagle"

“Eddie the Eagle” looks at first glance like a standard sports underdog story. Indeed, it’s a virtual remake of “Cool Runnings,” the 1993 film about the Jamaican bobsled team that competed at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

In fact, “Eddie” is set at the same time and place and involves another unlikely competitor who got his ticket punched to the Olympics only because of a complete absence of competition from their home country. With both the Jamaicans and British ski jumper Eddie Edwards, the goal was not to win but simply to earn a place in the competition.

They even recycle the made-up character of the washed-up, alcoholic athlete who reluctantly takes on the mantle of coach and mentor -- played by John Candy then and Hugh Jackman now.

But scratch but a little deeper, and you’ll find a story that’s actually about bullying, and overcoming it.

Director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriters Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton see in Eddie, a humble working-class plasterer played by Taron Egerton, an awkward kid who’s been picked on his entire life, and smelts that negative energy into determination to prove everyone wrong.

“I was kicked off every team I ever tried out for even before I had a chance to prove myself,” Eddie says.

A lot of the fascination with Eddie, and the reason that gives power to his redemption, is that he’s homely. With coke-bottle glasses, pinched features, horsey teeth and strangely angled jaw, Eddie gets written off by most everyone he meets. He wore braces on his legs as a child, and there’s still a quality of ungainliness about him. Just standing still, he looks awkward.

Earnest and not bright enough to be called a nerd, Eddie is the guy everybody laughs at.

The British Olympic selection committee certainly laugh him off, declining to let him try out for the skiing team despite being one of the top amateurs in England. Later it’s the veteran ski jumpers from Finland or Norway who titter when Eddie decides to take on the sport. They’re all long, lean Vikings, and here’s this stumpy, half-blind guy who resembles the antithesis of athleticism.

But Eddie is determined, declining to listen even to his father, who orders him repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to give up his Olympic dream and settle down in a stable trade. Mum (Jo Hartley) is more supportive, slipping him money and the even more valuable currency of absolute affection.

Eddie selects ski jumping because Britain hasn’t had one in Olympic competition in more than 50 years. That means there’s no community to train him up -- but also no one he has to try out against.

It might seem easy to be the best at something that no one else is doing. But this is a sport where mistakes lead not to disgrace, but a coffin.

Jackman plays Bronson Peary, a legendary former ski jumper who got kicked off the U.S. team for his drinking and carousing. Now the old lush who runs the snow plow, he becomes Eddie’s only friend and trainer. He doesn’t want the job, but reckons that if he doesn’t help, Eddie is liable to wind up dead.

Fletcher stages the jumps engagingly, showing us the soaring beauty and almost insane danger of the sport. The decathlon may be the measure of the finest overall athlete, but nobody routinely ends up with a broken body.

Egerton, who played second fiddle to Colin Firth in last year’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” gets more of a chance to shine here as the gullible but sweet Eddie. He shows us how this remarkable young man turned derision into cheers, and how triumph does not necessarily mean receiving a medal.

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