The underdog is an established trope in the sports film, but it is rare that the underdog is celebrated for merely his effort. Most of these kinds of stories focus on an under-appreciated team or person punching way above their weight class and de-throning the champion in a show of heart and determination. But, there are iconic examples of this kind of story where the victory is not the focus of the protagonist. Instead, the thematic elements are born from the characters showing the courage to compete against titanic odds. Examples of this kind of film range from the original Rocky and Bad News Bears, to true-life versions like Cool Runnings. Dexter Fletcher’s Eddie the Eagle is most similar in both plot and theme to the Jamaican bobsled film from 1993, but flirts with approaching the subject with a too-heavy hand in critical moments.
Fletcher’s film (produced by Matthew Vaughn, which is the name the marketing team wants us to associate with the movie) tells the story of Michael “Eddie” Edwards. Eddie’s Olympic aspirations date back to his childhood, and despite his noticeable lack of athleticism, he tried his hands at every event he could. Eventually, he settled on the Winter Olympics and skiing. Due to his somewhat goofy appearance and mannerisms, wonderfully portrayed by Taron Egerton, he is prevented from joining the British skiing team, but hatches a plot to travel to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary by becoming Britain’s only ski jumper!
The procedures for qualification are archaic, and Eddie takes full advantage of this. He goes to train in Germany, and despite acquiring a number of bruises, manages to attract the attention of Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), an American ex-ski jumper struggling with alcoholism. Eddie shows the courage to jump the 70m having only landed a single jump from the 30m. He flubs the landing and injures himself, but his bravery is sufficient to recruit Peary as his coach.
These jumping scenes – especially those from 70m and 90m – are the most stunning sequences in the entire film. Fletcher does a great job of alternating between point-of-view shots of the jumper, wide shots, and Go-Pro-styled close-ups to create a perfect recreation of the jump in a cinematic way. Wide shots stir the possibility of vertigo in our minds by showing us the full height of 70 and 90 meters. The point-of-view shots of the jumpers transmit that vertigo to our stomachs, and multiple people in my theatre squirmed in their seat and gasped at these moments. Even the close-up shots add to the experience. These sequences are the technical heights of the film, and may even be the outright best scenes.
Because thematically and structurally, there isn’t much here that doesn’t borrow heavily from the films I mentioned before – especially Cool Runnings. I venture that it would be impossible to actually list all of the clichés that can be found in this movie in an exhaustive manner. Reluctant, disgraced coach? Check. Training montages all-around? Check. Disapproving father who expresses his newfound pride in his Olympian son by revealing a shirt underneath his coat? Oh, you better believe that’s a check.
By themselves, these things are at worst annoying. When they start to show up in droves, though, they compound into a very hacky taste left in the mouth. But, if you embrace this kind of trope-based storytelling, there is actually a great deal of value in this film. One sequence in particular spells out the themes of the glory of competition despite immense odds and difficulty, and competing only for one’s own edification. And even those parts of the story that are completely by-the-book are handled well, they’re just not particularly innovative.
Still, it is impossible to walk away from Eddie the Eagle feeling that you’ve just watched a bad film. It’s themes are powerful and well-developed, and almost all of the characters are fleshed out and interesting (some of the antagonists are too one-dimensional, though). Besides that, it is a powerful film from a cinematic standpoint, using some innovative techniques to convey the terror and difficulty of actually committing to a ski jump. These sequences absolutely form the kernel of the film, as without this sense of fear, the audience may fail to understand the immense courage that Eddie personified during his Olympic run. For the film to ascend to the same heights as did Eddie, it would have needed a similarly novel approach to the storytelling as well. Lacking that, we are left with a pleasant telling of the story of Eddie the Eagle with some great visuals, but little more.