The first tip is the score. In the early scenes of Dexter Fletcher’s Eddie the Eagle, which portray young Eddie Edwards dreaming of Olympic gold and injuring himself in a variety of homemade “training” situations, Matthew Margeson’s music is so twinkly, so faux-inspirational, that it’s either a) terrible, or b) a very clever satire of twinkly, faux-inspirational sports movie scores. But then the cheesy synthesizers and hollow drum machines kick in, and Margeson’s intention becomes clear – as does the movie’s. Eddie the Eagle, which is set in the run-up to and during the 1988 Calgary Olympics, isn’t just a dramatization of those games’ underdog story. It’s a carefully constructed throwback, looking and sounding and playing like a movie not only set in the late ‘80s, but made then as well.
Edwards, if you don’t know (or didn’t remember) was a British lad whose lifelong ambition was to be an Olympian. When he was cut from the downhill skiing team – complete with a sneering “You will never be Olympic material” from the posh Olympic committee muckety-muck – he found a loophole: there was no British ski-jumping team, and hadn’t been for half a century. All he had to do was qualify. Oh, and learn how to ski-jump.
To do that, Eddie (Taron Egerton) travels to the key training facility for ski-jumpers, where he’s of course laughed at by the pros and sneered at by their coaches. But he finds his reluctant mentor: Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a rough-edged former American champ, now a shadow of his former self. Can this grizzled lost soul crawl out of the bottle and learn to believe/smile/etc.? Can Eddie overcome his lack of skill and credibility, thanks to his abundance of heart and spirit? Seriously, have you seen a movie before?
But what separates Eddie the Eagle from the countless – and I do mean countless – underdog sports stories before it is its awareness that you’ve seen all this before. Hell, this isn’t even the first movie about a plucky underdog at those Olympics; Calgary ’88 was the year that gave us Cool Runnings’ Jamaican bobsled team (who get a winking in-joke reference in Eddie). So instead of trying to reinvent the feel-good sports comedy/drama, director Dexter Fletcher leans in. Some movies must overcome their clichés; this one embraces them. Jackman makes his first, movie-star appearance clad in cowboy boots, blue jeans, a crew cut, and sunglasses. Eddie learns about Jackson’s Peary from a book written by his old Olympic coach (an uncredited Christopher Walken); when we hear an excerpt from the book, it’s got a goofy displacing echo. There’s not just a training montage – there’s a training montage to a Hall & Oates song. The sniveling upper-crust dick who stands in Eddie’s way doesn’t feel like your average movie stuffed shirt; he’s written and played like Ted Knight in Caddyshack, or the antagonist in the ‘80s snobs-vs.-slobs comedy of your choice. And so on.
It’s not that the notion of making a period film in a throwback style is all that revolutionary. But it sticks out here because so many of these tropes are still in circulation, used unapologetically and unironically. (Hell, I saw some of them last week, in Race .) Framing Eddie as not just a period piece but a throwback to the cinema of that era in which it’s set is a clever way to circumvent the complaint of predictability – particularly when so much of it is outright invention anyway. Besides that, those complaints fall to the wayside when this sort of thing is done well, as it is here. Late in the picture, Eddie finds himself in an elevator with the best ski-jumper in the world, and just as you’re bracing for another asshole kicking Eddie down a notch, they move past the cutesy shit and get at the real emotional core of the best sports movies. In that moment, and the scenes that follow, Eddie the Eagle isn’t just quoting inspirational sports flicks; it’s become one.
The picture comes up plenty short elsewhere – mainly in the lead performance by Egerton (who led Kingsman: The Secret Service), which is overworked and undercooked, reminiscent of a ‘90s movie where the bombshell wears glasses and we’re supposed to believe that she’s a social misfit. But it’s tough to get too sour on a movie this doggedly likable and cheerfully retro. It’s the kind of film where, when they play Van Halen’s “Jump” at the end, you not only enjoy it; you admire their restraint. You know it killed them to hold it that long.
Eddie the Eagle is out Friday.