Hoosiers is one of those films that somehow finds a way to strike a chord with nearly everyone who watches it. There are some movies that are just mainstream right down to their DNA. There’s this, there’s The Shawshank Redemption, maybe a Forrest Gump; they get mentioned as people’s favorite movies with far greater frequency than anything else. And I’m not talking about cinema buffs when I say people, I’m talking about your grandma, the guy who works on your car, the grandma that works on your car. You know, regular people. Since it contains one of the big starring roles of Gene Hackman’s career and it was directed by David Anspaugh, who repeated his success at telling an Indiana sports tale with Rudy, that should probably come as no surprise.
Disney is maybe the most mainstream production company in the movie business. From the very beginning they’ve focused on creating wholesome entertainment that the whole family can enjoy together. In the early 90s one of those attempts at making movies for the whole family was Cool Runnings, a John Candy starring bobsled movie that most people might describe as a “guilty pleasure.” It gets lumped in with other 90s sports movies that Disney made like The Mighty Ducks and Air Bud, movies that you can look back at with nostalgia, but if you were to watch them today would look about as ridiculous as a team of Jamaicans showing up to the Winter Olympics with a bobsled.
What do they have in common?
The underdog sports team triumphing over adversity story has always been a proven commodity in Hollywood. Tell a story where the little guy somehow manages to stand up to a titan and come out on top and you’re going to have audiences leaving the theater happy. Base your film on a sports story that actually happened in real life and you get bonus points. People like to be reminded that miracles do sometimes happen, and sports are one of the most visual and immediate reminders we have of that. Both Hoosiers and Cool Runnings offer all of that stuff. They’re prototypical entries in the sports movie genre. And they have even more in common in that they both feature coach characters with troubled and controversial pasts who are trying to make up for misdeeds with their current assignments.
These movies have so much in common you’d think they’d be talked about in the same breath, but they aren’t. Is Hoosiers really so much better a movie that it should have garnered Oscar nominations and lived on in people’s minds as something special while Cool Runnings is viewed as a goofy movie from people’s childhoods? I don’t think so.
Why is Hoosiers overrated?
I said above that Hoosiers is a prototypical entry into the sports movie genre, but unfortunately, that’s where it stops. Instead of using the typical underdog sports framework to tell a deeper story about well developed characters, Hoosiers focuses most of its attention just on the framework. We’re told that Hackman’s character has a troubled coaching past, but he never appears to be anything other than completely in control during this movie. We’re told that making it to the State Championships is a huge deal for this team of small town kids, but we’re never made to understand why. What effect does this season have on them as people? Why do they desperately need this success? What are the stakes? By the time Hoosiers is over I’ve barely just begun to be able to tell the kids apart.
The only non-sports related drama comes from a character played by Dennis Hopper, who is the father of one of the kids on the team, an assistant coach, and an alcoholic. Over the course of the film he must struggle with his addiction and keep his shit together to make it to the end of the season. This plot thread gives us a bit of character, but it isn’t done well. Hopper’s character has no real connection to the success of the team. In sports movies character bits should be used to color the big athletic climax and make them more engaging, Hopper’s story feels more like a B-plot that doesn’t have anything else to do with the rest of the film. He goes from drunk, to tenuously sober, to ridiculously drunk and checked into rehab, and his struggles have no consequences for the other characters. He falls, but they just move on and go to the finals anyway. And Hopper’s performance leaves something to be desired. He’s never been anything close to a subtle actor, but here he looks like a character from a Popeye cartoon playing drunk, not a character from an awards season prestige picture.
Watching Hoosiers often feels like you’re getting the Cliff’s Notes version of the story. Though we spend a lot of time in basketball games, we never get a sense of how the kids are progressing or what their strategy is for overcoming their physical shortcomings. The team just goes from sucking to doing well. And there’s no antagonist here, we’re never even introduced to the other teams that our heroes of Hickory play. A good sports movie has a team that you want to lose just as much as you want the protagonist to win; here our milquetoast men of the court are just going up against faceless nobodies. Some of those scenes where Hackman’s character is coaching the town drunk should have been cut and replaced with scenes where he’s getting to know and coaching his team, then maybe this movie could have told a more human story that would be deserving of all the accolades. Right now it’s just coasting on the fact that it’s an underdog story, and people love the underdog.
Why is Cool Runnings underpraised?
In addition to being a story about a group of underdogs who beat the odds, Cool Runnings is also a movie full of distinct, vibrant characters. These aren’t just four faceless Jamaicans bobsledding in the background of John Candy giving generically inspirational speeches, they’re four completely different men who all have their owns looks, their own personalities, and their own personal reasons for being on this team. One is here to fulfill the lifelong dream of being an Olympian. One is struggling with class issues, trying to find a way out of his lower class trap. Another is dealing with daddy issues, using a chance at athletic greatness to separate himself from his father’s legacy. And another isn’t even supposed to be here, he’s just a slacker who got brought along for the ride. They’ve all got individual journeys to take, and unique lessons to learn. If you add in their coach, once you get to their final run you’ve got five stories all culminating in one big moment. That’s a well structured sports movie.
You don’t need to just be into sports to enjoy this movie either, it’s also a pretty effective comedy. Sure, it’s a Disney comedy, a family comedy, so it’s not anything that’s going to really blow your hair back with its edgy approach to humor. But when you stack it up against the aforementioned Mighty Ducks and Air Bud, it’s aged pretty well. There are some real laughs here, mostly coming from the hijinx of Doug E. Doug’s character, who is very clearly crafted to be the comic relief, but who doesn’t cross over into the realm of being wacky and annoying. Doug E. Doug seemed like he was really going places back in the early 90s, whatever happened to that guy? He went from Spike Lee joints, to Disney joints, to nothing. I think it’s time for a comeback.
Despite all of the wackiness that creeps in, this doesn’t just degenerate into being a lighthearted romp either. A large part of that is in thanks to the performance of John Candy, who plays the coach character with a believable weariness and an authentically grizzled disposition. For being primarily known as a comedic actor, Candy was pretty good here bringing the pathos, and it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see him tackle more dramatic stuff in a late career that never came. As is, his performance in Cool Runnings is one of the last looks we got at the man, and it serves as a glimpse at what might have been. How good would Candy have been slipping into the Bill Murray mold of late career comedian taking sad faced roles? Unfortunately we’ll never know.
Evening the Odds
Is Gene Hackman a better actor than John Candy? Yeah, pretty undoubtedly. He’s the sort of presence that lends a weight to a project that can be invaluable to a pseudo-schmaltzy sports tear-jerker like Hoosiers. But when working with material this limiting in subtlety and nuance, it creates a bit of a handicap where somebody like Candy can rise up and stand on equal footing while faced with similar limitations. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Cool Runnings is a better movie than Hoosiers, but it’s a lot more fun. Should the fact that it isn’t the sort of film that gets attention at Oscar time diminish our opinion of it and have us laughing and calling it a guilty pleasure when people bring it up?
I’m willing to stand up and say that I love this movie non-ironically. I can feel the rhythm, I can feel the rhyme.