MGM // 2001 // 99 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // March 24th, 2006
A town's future is riding with one man.
Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) in his pre-crucifixion days, headlines this based-on-a-true-story tale about the little hydroplane boat that could. Does this excursion into the feel-good sports territory prove to be contender, or does it end up water-logged with genre clichés?
Caviezel plays Jim McCormick, a retired speedboat racer from the sleepy town of Madison, Indiana. There's not much to say about Madison: it's small, poor, and recently suffered staggering job losses. Well, okay, I guess there is stuff to say about the town, but it's not good stuff.
So Jim, his loving wife, his devoted son (Jake Lloyd, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace), and the rest of the population of Madison have only one thing in life to look forward to: the hydroplane races. Madison has participated in these races since the early 20th century, and the sport is beloved by the simple townsfolk. But this year (1971), the future of the town's racing looks grim. Investors desperate to open the sport to bigger markets are looking to boot Madison out of the circuit. But when a lucky draw reveals that Madison has been selected to host the Gold Cup, the biggest race of the year, the town's luck may have changed.
Now, Madison must come together and support their racing crew, even as pitfall after pitfall befalls them: blown engines, disgruntled pilots, personal tragedy, and the jerks from the Budweiser team in their flashy, new boat.
But the biggest challenge lies at the cusp of the race when Jim will be forced to sit down in the pilot's seat after an eight-year vacancy, and risk his life to give the town that which they need the most: hope. Well, hope and enough money to complete the third phase of the road improvements plan. Old Man Harwell has been complaining something fierce about those potholes for, what, going on five years now?
Madison is pure, pasteurized family-friendly cheese. As a sports movie, it is utterly predictable and crammed sideways with every cliché you can find. There are elements in Madison that have been used and reused in many a sports movie before it. I guess that's not necessarily a deal-breaker for those of you looking for harmless, syrupy theatrics. But for anyone anticipating a sports film with something new, you'll find more originality in that wheelchair basketball episode from Saved by the Bell.
Stop me if you've heard this before: "a good-natured guy who has a troubled past with a certain sport finds himself facing the challenge that forced him out in the first place." How about this: "a committed group of eccentric friends (including one mildly retarded man) overcome the far-more-qualified opposing team and bests them in the final match." Try this one on for size: "the heavily-favored team is comprised of absolute dickheads." Or: "but said dickheads come to appreciate the hard work and grittiness of the uppity good guys."
Then, toss in a few points of family strife -- the conflict between the husband who wants to participate in the dangerous sport versus the wife who loves her husband so much and can't bear to watch him take his life into his hands; the innocent, son who loves his dad and has to put up with the jeers from the son of the opposing racer -- add a few generous dollops of Splenda, let simmer for 99 minutes, and voila! a generic movie about ________. But instead of "peewee hockey" or "college football" or "high school basketball" or "girls bowling" insert "hydroplane boat racing."
Hey, at least Madison has no desire to be something other than it is. What you expect is what you get, and you can map out the plot progression of the film from minute one. And I'll concede that PG live action films are a rarity these days, and there is absolutely nothing offensive at work here. But after a while, the cheese gets to you, man.
Wait, there is one moment that surprised me -- but not necessarily in a positive way. The town has gathered in the school gymnasium to vote on funding the Gold Cup, and the overwhelming majority of residents are dead-set against dishing out that much money, especially with the recent job losses. Just as they're about to vote it down, Jim gets up and reads a letter from the one of bigwig investors, talking about how backwards Madison is and that it's full of hicks and so on and so forth. Immediately, the voters are filled with righteous anger and opt to stick it to those West Coast know-it-alls and resoundingly vote the funding measure in -- thus proving the point of the letter.
The film looks great in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The boat race scenes, easily the most engaging of the film, are detailed and sharp, and the action tracks well on-screen. Some limited CGI is used for a few pyrotechnics scenes, and does not fare okay on DVD. The 5.1 mix is up to the task of projecting that swelling, orchestral, emotion-tugging score. The boats sound pretty good too. A decent behind-the-scenes extra called "Madison: Behind the Thunder" features interviews with the real-life characters, actors, and filmmakers.
There ain't nothing you haven't seen here before, though there is the ironic view of Jake Lloyd standing on the sidelines cheering a fast, colorful race in another cheesy movie. I was half-expecting the Budweiser driver to yell "Bantha poodoo!"
Guilty of third-degree feel-good predictability.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* "Madison: Beyond the Thunder"