The town of Madison deserves more than this sports-movie cliché


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Jake "Li'l Anakin" Lloyd and James "Passionate Christ" Caviezel are most famous for portraying screen heroes created by virgin birth, so it makes a strange kind of sense that their team-up in Madison feels about as passionless as an immaculate conception. Left on the shelf for four years, the movie is finally seeing wide release, probably because of some contract technicality in the recent sale of MGM to Sony.

In this film's reality, Lloyd will one day grow up not to become Hayden Christensen or Sebastian Shaw, but rather John Mellencamp, who narrates the tale of the summer he spent with his father in 1971 preparing for a boat race. Caviezel plays a character conveniently named Jim, who was once a top hydroplane racer (think NASCAR on water) until a traumatic accident caused him to walk away from competition. Need it be said that he will eventually have a slo-mo flashback to that day and ultimately face his demons to race again? Nah, thought not.

Jim's other kid is an ugly baby that cries all the time, and his wife (Mary McCormack, looking surprisingly like Selma Blair) is the standard killjoy type of homemaker who wants her husband to make more money and spoils all his fun messing around with boats. But she's hot, which is undoubtedly what matters to him.

The town of Madison, Indiana, once a thriving port, is taking an economic downturn, with people and businesses moving away. The hydroplane races are still a local obsession, but the boat that the town has entered every year is in sorry shape, and when they try to rig it up with tanks of nitrous oxide, the ensuing explosion doesn't help. The final insult comes during an away race, when Jim hears a higher profile competitor from the Budweiser-sponsored team agitate for a championship race date that would conflict with Madison's own local contest, thereby shutting them out.

So when random luck of the draw leads to Madison being picked for that year's Gold Cup Regatta, Jim accepts, even though it means raising $50,000 in the next two days -- a tough task when there are only 134 ticket-buyers in town. In fact, according to at least one Madison local posting on the Internet Movie Database, this part of the ostensibly true story is pure fiction -- owing to a technicality, Madison's bid was actually the only one submitted by the deadline, and the races regularly drew audiences in the tens of thousands.

In another really strange factual error, Dan Haggerty shows up, as he is wont to do in low-budget family films, and does nothing but stand there, as young Mike (Lloyd) wonders aloud, "Is that Grizzly Adams over there?" Oops -- it's 1971, and the first Grizzly Adams movie will not appear in theaters for another three years. Haggerty will also not look quite so old in that one.

Although Mike narrates the story, he has nothing to do, really. He gets insulted by city boys, goes to a cave and rides his bike a bit. There's a moment when it appears he might really cause some conflict, where he seems torn when the adults suggest stealing a crucial mechanical part, but, well...probably shouldn't spoil even a movie so predictably dull. Suffice it to say the resolution isn't interesting. Lloyd, as in every movie he's done other than The Phantom Menace, is actually an agreeable screen presence, proving once again that George Lucas has no clue how to direct actors. Caviezel, on the other hand, is totally bland in any movie where he's not being beaten to death.

Not to pick on the filmmakers too much, mind. It's not as though they're untalented; everything is in focus and looks all right, there aren't any obvious gaps in logic, etc. But unless your specific field of interest happens to be hydroplane boats in small towns, it's unlikely you'll be excited by Madison. There's very little dramatic conflict, and when it comes, it's usually resolved not through anybody's initiative, but by the aggrieved party simply and spontaneously deciding to no longer be mad.

You'd hope that at least the high-speed boat races would be fun to watch, but the budget clearly wasn't there to stage many of them. When you find yourself wondering what the producers of The Fast and the Furious would have done with similar material, it doesn't say much for the movie at hand. Slow and steady, the saying goes, wins the race, but it hampers the odds for an exciting race film.

Over the end credits, footage of the actual race that inspired the story is shown, and even in just a couple of minutes, it packs more drama than all the other 97 of the flick's running time. Perhaps a documentary would have been the best way to tell the tale.

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