Eddie The Eagle
Sporting biopic sticks strictly to the bunny hill, but it’s a crowd-pleaser nonetheless
Eddie the Eagle (2016)
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman
Is there no sporting event that the successful conquering of, or noble failure at, cannot inspire us mere out-of-shape mortals to manly tears and nationalistic hoots? Curling, maybe? ... Checking IMDB.com. ... Men With Brooms (2002). Well, I’ll be damned. I guess there isn’t one. So desperate is the need for inspiring sports movies that the 1988 Winter Olympics (the Winter Olympics, mind you) has now given us not one but two root-
Taron Egerton, hot off 2014’s manic spy-fi flick Kingsmen: The Secret Service, does a 180 in midair—transforming from suave, streetwise spy Eggsy Unwin to dorky, eager beaver athlete Eddie Edwards. Afflicted by a bum leg as a child, poor Gloustershire kid Eddie grows up with a unstoppable drive to overcome adversity. Despite a chubby frame and bottle-thick glasses, he dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete—to the exclusion of all other career avenues. Mum (Jo Hartley) tries her best to encourage the lad. But when Eddie fails to make the cut for the British Olympic ski team for the umpteenth time, down-to-Earth dad (Keith Allen) tells Eddie it’s time to pick up a trowel and get into the family plastering business. Undeterred, our boy Eddie spots a loophole: There is no downhill ski jumping team in England. In fact, there hasn’t been a British ski jumper since the 1920s. In order to qualify for the Olympics, all he’s got to do is register—never mind the fact he’s never even been on a ski jump.
Working class, poorly educated and only marginally talented, Eddie is rebuffed by Olympics officials. Quickly re-jiggering the rules, they decide he’ll have to prove his worth by qualifying in an international tournament. Naturally, Eddie steals his dad’s van and drives off to Bavaria to start practicing. While crashing the scene at an expensive ski resort, our tenacious underdog runs across a crusty old American caretaker named Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman, looking less like a burned-out alcoholic and more like a guy who was named “Sexiest Man Alive” a few years ago). Turns out that (the entirely fictional) Bronson was a world-champion ski jumper, at least until his rebellious ego got the better of him and he dropped off the face of the Earth. All Eddie’s got to do is convince Bronson to give up the bottle, come out of retirement and teach him how to jump in a couple of months—a task that should require about 20 minutes of screentime and some abusive insults from several rich, snooty Olympians (all of whom seem to have taken lessons from the bad guys in Karate Kid).
A few training montages later and Eddie has managed to finagle his way inside the Winter Olympics in Calgary. Admittedly, a lot of our hero’s backstory in Eddie the Eagle is completely confabulated. In real life Eddie was already a record holder in amateur speed skating and stunt jumping by the time he showed up at the Olympics. He narrowly missed getting on the 1984 Olympic team and moved to Lake Placid to train for several years prior to the ’88 Olympics. (Mr. Edwards himself calls the film “about 10 percent” true.) Once our boy arrives at the Olympic Village, however, his character is recognizably close to real life. Egerton does a commendable job of inhabiting the skin of sweet, simple, loveably uncharismatic Eddie Edwards. The kid was something of a joke at the Olympics—the underdog who was never going to come from behind to triumph. Like the Jamaican bobsled team, he started off in last place and stayed there. But he captured some kind of spirit. And the crowds loved him. Some saw him as the “noble failure” who bravely epitomized the Olympics’ theoretical archetype of the amateur athlete (something that—for example—Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan didn’t exactly embody on the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team”). It is this cheerful, underachieving attitude that this film wants desperately to impart to its cineplex audiences.
Eddie the Eagle embraces the inspiring sports movie formula with the unwavering deathgrip of Charlton Heston on a Winchester rifle. Even if you’ve never heard of Eddie Edwards (and if you’re not a British national, you probably haven’t), Eddie The Eagle will present you with nearly as many twists and turns as a 120m ski jump slope. (None. There are none.) The film is as straighforward and predictable as they come. And yet, it’s piled with so many feel-good, audience-pleasing moments that disliking it feels like booing the Parade of Nations. (Look at little Tonga down there. They sent one guy. He’s a boxer. Good for him!)
Since the message of Eddie the Eagle is “It’s not the succeeding that’s important, it’s the trying,” it would probably be in bad form to point out the film never truly succeeds. Its uplift is artificial, given air mostly by a by-the-numbers script and the hope of some Pavlovian response on the part of the audience. But it tries hard. And with this particular story, that counts for a lot.