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Misses the Landing

20th Century Fox
 106 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed byDexter Fletcher 
Starring: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman
Eddie the Eagle

Just last week, in my review of Race, I noted that Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic ideal, which holds that competing is more important than winning, vanished almost immediately after the modern Olympics began in 1896. Now, one week later, another new movie arrives that actually is dedicated to de Coubertin’s ideal. In 1988, British ski jumper Michael Edwards, better known by his nickname “Eddie the Eagle,” finished dead last in the two ski jumping events held at the Calgary Winter Olympics—and became a national hero and world celebrity in the process.


You would think that the real life story of Edwards, whose desire to become an Olympian led to his sleeping in a mental hospital to save money during training and borrowing his coach’s equipment, would have been enough of a human interest tale to support a movie. Sadly, director Dexter Fletcher and novice screenwriters Sean Macaulay and Simon Felton thought they needed an even more compelling underdog story. Obviously, they couldn’t change the history of Edwards’ Olympic competition. Instead, they transformed Edwards from a reasonably talented amateur athlete (he almost qualified for the 1984 British team as a skier and was an accomplished stuntman) into a hapless buffoon who trains by imagining himself having sex with Bo Derek.


The film version of Edwards (Taron Egerton) is cut from the British national ski team after causing a disastrous mishap and agrees to work with his father (Keith Allen) as a plasterer. But he soon realizes that he can probably qualify for the Olympics as a ski jumper, since Great Britain hadn’t had an Olympian in that event in over 50 years. All he needs to do is to make a moderately difficult qualifying jump in a competition. So, with the support of his mother (Jo Hartley) but not that of his grumbling father, Edwards goes off to Germany to train.


Once in Europe, Edwards becomes a laughingstock, as the other athletes shun or ridicule him, especially the Norwegians. Eventually, thanks to his spectacular falls, he attracts the attention of Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), an American who was once a world-class jumper but is now a washed-up alcoholic hanger-on. With Peary’s help, Edwards becomes skillful enough to make the Olympic qualification mark.


Unfortunately, Edwards’ problems don’t end once he makes the team. The British Olympic committee, afraid that Edwards’ presence will make the entire team look ridiculous, changes its qualifying standards so that Edwards’ performance was no longer good enough for him to make the team. Edwards still manages to qualify, albeit barely, under the new rules, and finds himself the most celebrated member of the British team in Calgary, to the chagrin of his teammates, several of whom had played mean-spirited jokes on him.


Eddie the Eagle gets a few things right, both about Edwards’ life story and in respect to making a good movie. There was considerable resentment of Edwards initially (although in retrospect the British team had little to complain about; none of the other British athletes won a single medal in that Olympics either). And Taron Egerton captures Edwards’ infectious high spirits perfectly. Edwards only acquired his nickname at the Olympics when the crowd dubbed him “Eddie the Eagle” after seeing him celebrate a landing by flapping his arms around.


The most realistic aspect of Eddie the Eagle is the excitement and the danger inherent in ski jumping. Director Fletcher has plenty of stock footage of spectacular crashes to choose from here, and his coverage of the actual jumps combines stock footage, point-of-view footage from actual jumpers, the filming of stunt doubles in flight, and some CGI, all of which make the actual aerials quite exciting to watch. So, when Edwards makes the decision to compete in the even longer, more demanding 90-meter jump after the 70-meter competition ends at the Olympics, Fletcher is able to build on an actual sense of danger there.


It’s good that there’s some genuine drama here and a likable performance by Egerton (who enjoys good chemistry with Jackman as well), because the script has every last Hollywood cliché imaginable. Of course, it would be one thing if some of these events actually happened, but, here, the writers fictionalize over and over to the detriment of the film. The worst example of this is the character of Bronson Peary. Edwards, who actually trained in Lake Placid, NY, had two fairly ordinary coache, not the completely fictional Peary. In creating the Peary character, Eddie the Eagle seems to be channeling the original Bad News Bears, with Jackman a trimmer but no less disagreeable version of Walter Matthau.


Very few of the attempts at humor in the film are actually funny, and they undercut one of the more serious moments in the movie, when Edwards declares to the British Olympic Committee, “I take jumping very seriously.” Sadly, it’s hard to take a guy seriously who stands on top of a van wearing his full ski uniform while his coach drives him around. Plus, laughing at Edwards’ failings is essentially the same thing that his smug competitors do.


Surprisingly, one invented moment in Eddie the Eagle does work. Christopher Walken shows up in a third act cameo as the “legendary” coach who trained Peary a decade earlier, before Peary threw his career away. Of course, the two reconcile, a moment that’s telegraphed but also effective. Walken, who often chews the scenery even in bit parts like this, plays the scene in a subdued, low-key manner that makes it one of the few dramatic moments in the movie that actually do work.


Eddie the Eagle isn’t a bad movie; the production values and acting are quite good, and the basic story, sensationalized as it may be, still resonates on some level. But, unlike its protagonist, it never soars when it should. What Edwards actually endured to make it to the Olympics was fairly astonishing, the stuff of which a truly good drama could have been made. Instead, the filmmakers throw away any chance of a medal by having the extremely charismatic Taron Egerton reduced to doing his best imitation of Larry from the Three Stooges on a pair of skis.

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Eddie the Eagle (2016) on IMDb