“It’s not like I’m taking up ballet!” exclaims underdog would-be Olympian Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton), in the face of refusal from his working-class Dad (Tim McInnerny). Actually, though, in movie terms, Eddie the Eagle is almost exactly like that: if “Billy Elliot on skies” was not part of the pitch meeting, I can’t imagine what else got the greenlight for this almost entirely fictional biopic of the unlikely English ski-jumper, who exploited the loophole of no actual British ski-jumping team existing, then finished dead last as a goofy crowd favorite.
We first meet Eddie as an elementary school student, holding his breath underwater and tripping over handmade hurdles in a wildly ambitious plan to be an Olympian of any sort. It’s the ‘70s, as we can tell by the yellow filter on the camera, and his long-suffering father is getting tired of having to drive out in the middle of the night to stop his boy taking the bus to Europe. By the time Eddie has grown into Egerton, knocking would be ski-team cohorts down like dominoes, he seems mentally off somehow. Neither the movie nor Eddie’s official biography says it explicitly, but the way he’s portrayed onscreen suggests he occupied a position on the autism spectrum prior to the one on the Olympic team.
Then again, this is a movie that has invented out of whole cloth its second lead, a drunken former champ played by Hugh Jackman as exactly the sort of movie alcoholic who can hold down a job, drive a car, dispense sage advice and ultimately drop the drink just like that, despite a bourbon-for-breakfast habit. The real-life Eddie trained in America and got invited to the games while working in Finnland; the movie Eddie meets Jackman’s character, an American ex-Olympian named Bronson Peary, while working at the bar in a German ski resort and training facility, where the older owner wishes to seduce him as she has many drunk tourists.
Eddie the Eagle passes the primary test of sports movies, in that it’s entertaining if you don’t give a damn about either ski-jumping or the facts of the story. Egerton pulls a complete 180 from his Kingsman character and effectively proves he need not be typecast as a pretty face, while Jackman ably supports without stealing the show. A running gag has Christopher Walken appearing in photos and voice-over throughout as Jackman’s former mentor; when he finally appears in person, it’s a great payoff. Many props also should go to composer Matthew Margeson, whose ‘80s synth-style, faux Chariots-of-Fire soundtrack, augmented with actual ‘80s new-wave songs, keeps things popping and gives the whole movie a Hot Rod kind of feel, especially during a montage of Eddie repeatedly failing his jumps and faceplanting violently.
Now, if you do care about veracity and the sport at hand, I’d have to imagine this is all less appealing. Ski-jumping isn’t something you can just teach an actor to do convincingly as you might train one in basic football or archery, so it requires obvious special effects. Combine such noticeably fictionalized jumps with a fictionalized narrative, and you get a story that real-life fans of Eddie will probably nitpick as heartily as the rest of us do with Batman movies.
The damnedest thing is that Eddie’s story is compelling all by itself. It didn’t have to be turned into a broad comedy with an invented mentor, and could have stood on the facts as an inspirational drama. I’m not saying I’d have been any more interested in seeing it, though, and perhaps that’s the point.
Two and a half burritos for Eddie the Eagle, and subtract that half if the embellishments bother you more than they did me.
Image via Fox.