Review by Rob Vaux
You’ve seen Eddie the Eagle before in numerous different films. It’s not out to break the plucky-sports-underdog-makes-good formula, and sticks to script so closely that you never doubt where it’s going or when its time-tested beats are going to drop. Looking at the film in those terms misses the point, and if you can get past that, there’s a lot of charm, heart and good old-fashioned entertainment in its tale of another little guy with big dreams that manages to do everything right.
In that sense, it matches its subject matter quite well: Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, a scruffy little Englishman who somehow found himself at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, where he placed dead last in the ski-jumping competition and won the hearts of the entire world in the process. Nobody remembers who actually medaled that year, but if you were watching the Olympics, then you remember Eddie: sheepish grin plastered on his face as he dared to soar where so many had soared before him.
But it wasn’t just his status as an unlikely mascot that makes his story so interesting. In a world obsessed with excessive competition and meaningless victories, where second place too often means the first loser, he reminds us that effort can hold much more value than accomplishment. The only true test of your worth is yourself after all, and if you can punish yourself farther than you thought you could go, you’ve earned more than any medal.
So it was with Eddie (Taron Egerton), instilled with a desire to compete in the Olympics at an early age and never quite athletically inclined enough to make it happen. He thought that downhill skiing was his ticket, but despite years of effort, he still finds himself on the outside looking in. That’s when it hits him: Great Britain has no ski jumping team. All he has to do is teach himself how to do it and participate in a couple of competitions, and his dream will be realized.
Naturally, it’s not as easy as that. The British Olympic Committee takes a very dim view of his shenanigans, and the German ski jumping facility where he finds himself pretty much laughs him off the property every time he takes a jump. But he catches the eye of the ubiquitous washed-up former great (Hugh Jackman), who reluctantly agrees to Yoda this dogged little Luke Skywalker clone to greatness.
As I said, it’s nothing new, but the film’s real-life origins lend it an integrity and a sense of heart that wouldn’t have been possible were this pure fiction. Director Dexter Fletcher is best known as an actor, and like a lot of actor/directors, he has a very good touch with his cast. Egerton (last seen as the lead in Kingsmen) does a credible impersonation of his subject, but more importantly, he finds the man’s soul. His Eddie is all eager smiles and helpfulness, the kind of nice guy who always sat alone in the cafeteria and never let it get him down for one moment. He wins us over immediately, but his pluck holds strength that the shines through in the performance, causing us to root for him like mad despite already knowing how well his story turns out.
To that, you can add Jackman, who isn’t particularly challenged as an actor here but brings every watt of his movie-star charisma to dazzling effect. His alcoholic has-been does nothing unexpected, but the actor still leaves us eager to see what he’s going to do next. With him and Egerton acting as a latter-day odd couple, we follow them from Germany to Calgary and the strangest kind of immortality you can think of, giggling at much of it but cheering them all the way.
The lack of cynicism may be Eddie the Eagle’s biggest weapon: embracing its story clichés and all and – much like its hero – leading us to embrace it just as forcefully. The story’s true, after all, and the real life Eddie discovered a glory that even he couldn’t have predicted: the kind that doesn’t come from a medal stand. He had his fifteen minutes and he faded, but you don’t see Hugh Jackman making movies about the people who beat him. That’s because Eddie is one of us: a misfit toy determined to get up just one time more often than he gets knocked down, and realizing his dreams in the journey rather than the destination. Eddie the Eagle commits itself to that simple truth, unvarnished by snickering or dismissal and possessing the perfect tone to turn us into believers too. It’s harder than it looks, and those of us who remembered that moment in ’88 can attest to its power. The movie can too, which is how it turns another clichéd sports story into something much better.