An uplifting new sports biopic is flying overhead, if only barely. “Eddie the Eagle” stars Taron Egerton as British ski jumper Michael “Eddie” Edwards, who landed on the British ski team for the 1988 Olympics despite a relative lack of training and athletic achievement.
Eddie “The Eagle,” as he was dubbed after he celebrated one victory with some flappy dancing, is the everyman in an electric blue jumpsuit and hot pink goggles, a guy told repeatedly that he isn’t an athlete, that “you’re not Olympic material.”
Athletic limitations be damned; Eddie soared by refusing to give up. This gentle comedy is more interested in doing justice to the spirit of his achievement and the style of late-’80s comedy than the details of his life, but the resulting confection is sweet and simple.
A script for the Eddie The Eagle story had flown around Britain for years, but when Matthew Vaughn (“X-Men: First Class,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service“) signed on to produce, the thing got made. Vaughn dropped his ‘Kingsman’ lead Taron Egerton into the title role, and while the actor is much better looking than Eddie ever was, making his bumblingly asexual relations with women somewhat difficult to accept, he brings a determined physicality and bottomless good humor to the part.
With big glasses and a bigger underbite, Egerton ambles through the movie leading with his chin––his mouth permanently scrunched into a focused frown. Eddie’s peach-fuzz mustache and bushy haircut never look quite right on him, as the idea seems to be that Eddie doesn’t look quite right anywhere, even in the air, that’s an acceptable shortcoming. With the glasses magnifying his eyes to seemingly twice their real size, Egerton is an almost cartoonish vision; it’s easy to like him.
Having worn leg braces for weak knees as a child, Eddie nonetheless grows up determined to be not merely an athlete, but an Olympian. Eventually settling on ski jumping as a vocation, in part because there are no other British ski jumpers, he heads to Germany to train.
Arriving virtually penniless, Eddie crashes in a bar near the training grounds. The sexually aggressive owner offers him a place to stay in exchange for menial work at the bar and possibly a little action at night. That flirtation/sexual harassment goes nowhere, however, leading one to wonder if the studio snipped a few things to create a more family-friendly film. This film is a lot like an ’80s comedy, but that comedy is not “The Secret of My Success.”
Grounds at the training camp are maintained by Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a washed-up former champion and current drunk. (“This is my jacket,” he says of his stars and stripes-emblazoned flask.) He’s a snow cowboy, and he might also just be Wolverine. (Can Hugh Jackman ever not be Wolverine? Bronson seems to shake the earth when he first jumps out of his snow plow.)
You know how this goes. There are arguments and a training montage or two. There’s a British Olympic committee chief who wears a frown as casually and constantly as a necktie, and who hates Eddie’s workaday, blue-collar approach to sport. It’s all performed with genial good nature by Egerton and Jackman, directed with a minimum of fuss by Dexter Fletcher. (Christopher Walken also makes a brief appearance, and is relatively direct in his delivery.)
A few big high points spike above everything else, two of which involve skiing. Only one of those two sequences amplifies emotions by adding a Thin Lizzy song. Thin Lizzy is like a cheat code for accessing good feelings. The tune in question is “Cowboy Song,” the use of which shouldn’t come as a surprise because by this point you will already have seen Hugh Jackman’s cowboy boots.
Another good and familiar song juices up the big finale with poppy synth tones, too, but that one will remain unspoiled. The score, which features quite a few cues done in a faithful and exemplary ’80s-synth style, hints at the finale song choice a few times so you probably won’t be surprised by that one either. The score will quite possibly power private training montages for film nerds in the future, too.
The rest of “Eddie the Eagle” tends to exist in a somewhat narrow emotional range. This isn’t “Rudy,” and Eddie’s “all is lost” moment isn’t very low. We generally know how this moment will end, so his low point is difficult to craft. But even then, this version plays pretty airy.
Likewise, enmity between British Olympians and Eddie, despite being forecast as severe, turns out to be a minor squall. That’s not so bad, really. In film after film, we’ve seen many scenes where good-looking champs are jerks to the underdog, and this movie gets by just fine without adding one more to the canon.
Regardless, “Eddie the Eagle” is a buoyant film, like “Rocky” on skis but a lot lighter — it’s all about going the distance, not achieving a big win. Fletcher layers in nostalgic jokes and references (Eddie’s victory dancing looks rather like Homer Simpson, and Bronson coaches using a “sex with Bo Derek” metaphor half the audience won’t get) even as he omits some details to compress Eddie’s history and make him out to be even less of a viable competitor than he was in real life.
“Eddie the Eagle” is as appealing and fluffy as a new pile of dry snow. The factual changes may bother the real Eddie, but this movie keeps its eye strictly on the image of achieving a thing no one expects you to achieve. “I love ski jumping,” Eddie says, “almost as much as I love proving people wrong.” [B]
“Eddie The Eagle” was added as a surprise screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Click here for our complete coverage from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.