'Eddie the Eagle': Sundance Review

Eddie the Eagle 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
A multiplex-friendly underdog tale.

Hugh Jackman reluctantly coaches Taron Egerton to bumbling Olympic stardom.

Most American moviegoers don't know the story of Eddie Edwards, the plasterer who managed to represent Great Britain in the 1988 Olympic ski-jumping contest despite a startling lack of athletic prowess. And they won't quite know it even after Eddie the Eagle, which takes tremendous liberties with the actual facts (which are sometimes more colorful than the script's inventions). But the essence of what made the man inspiring to so many — it's not the winning, but the effort that's important — comes through with gonglike clarity in Dexter Fletcher's film, a straight-down-the-ramp sports tale that plays to the average man's dreams of momentary greatness. With Hugh Jackman as Eddie's coach, multiplex doors are open to the ingratiating pic, though it may not be greeted quite as warmly elsewhere as it was in this ski town at a "secret" Sundance screening.

Steve Coogan was once slated to play the gawky, eccentric Eddie; a few years later, Rupert Grint had the gig. But in the end it went to Taron Egerton, fresh from Kingsman: The Secret Service and ready for a major change from that film's wannabe Bond glamour. Here, he wears awkward, ill-fitting glasses and screws his face up as if suffering from a mild palsy, playing a man who dreamed of being an Olympian from childhood but proved incompetent at every sport he tried.

As Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton's script has it, Eddie finally got passably good at downhill skiing, but when the time came to pick Britain's 1988 team, he was just too big a klutz. But when he learned of antiquated rules that made it much easier to get on the bill as a ski-jumper than a regular skier — the nation had no ski-jump ramps, so competition was nonexistent — he decided to qualify in that category. Though he'd never jumped in his life.

The real Edwards in fact had considerably more experience, and had stunt-jumped over buses and cars, but that's not a good enough story for Eagle, which gets most of its mileage out of looking up at big ramps — 40 meters, 70 meters, the neck-breaking 90 — and treating them like frontiers of unthinkable difficulty. Eddie faces these challenges in Garmisch, Germany, where he meets the fictional Bronson Peary (Jackman), a onetime U.S. Ski Team star who was kicked out by also-fictional coach Warren Sharp (Christopher Walken) for being a rule-breaking hotshot whose daredevilry was sure to get his wingman killed some day. Wait, that last part was from Top Gun.

These days, Peary drives a snowplow and drinks his breakfast from a whiskey bottle. He's disgusted by Eddie's attempts to teach himself how to jump, but in the way of underdog sports films, he soon comes around, if only to keep the stupid kid from killing himself. It doesn't hurt that Peary despises the Finnish ski studs who taunt Eddie with their superior technique and proud Scandinavian penises.

And now it's time for a Hall & Oates training montage, in which the grouchy vet imparts ski-jump wisdom ("Approach the leap as if you're screwing Bo Derek") to his student, who has stolen his dad's van and borrowed the family's savings from Mom in order to pay for his attempts to qualify for the Olympics. Spoiler alert: He qualifies, and his performance there, of which we will say nothing, endears him to home viewers and the press to an extent sure to rile athletes who've been training since they were 5 or 6. That last bit, at least, is true.

Egerton lays the I'm-a-dork routine on awfully thick in the film's first act, but the performance gets easier to take as the film goes on — perhaps mellowing in the presence of Jackman, who seems to understand there's no need to push himself in such a cookie-cutter role. Matthew Margeson's synth-heavy score apes 1988 perfectly well, and the gravity-defying action gives this pic a slight thrill-ride edge over Cool Runnings, which was based on another unlikely story from the 1988 Winter Games and was a clear inspiration here. Still, this being Sundance, a viewer can't help but wonder how this tale might have been told by a director currently in town with another film: Having made a 1976 documentary about woodcarver turned ski-jumper Walter Steiner and been an amateur jumper himself, what would Werner Herzog have made of Eddie Edwards' feats of mad bravery?

Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Production companies: Marv Films, Saville Productions

Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Christopher Walken, Jo Hartley, Keith Allen, Tim McInnerny
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Screenwriters: Sean Macaulay, Simon Kelton
Producers: Adam Bohling, Rupert Maconick, David Reid, Valerie Van Galder, Matthew Vaughn
Executive producer: Zygi Kamasa
Director of photography: George Richmond
Production designer: Mike Gunn
Editor: Martin Walsh
Composer: Matthew Margeson
Casting director: Reg Poerscout-Edgerton

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes