This review was originally published at Christianity Today.
Jim Caviezel passed up a chance to be a character in one of the best comic book movies ever made. The actor recently told The Seattle Times that he was cast as Cyclops for the original X-Menmovie, a box-office and critical hit in 2000. But then another script came along, and Caviezel, who says he was “literally in costume as Cyclops,” bolted the X set and took the other acting gig instead.
The Passion of the Christ? Nope. That would come later. Caviezel passed up the chance to be a superhero with “optic fire blasts” to instead play the role of …. a boat racer. That’s Caviezel’s gig in Madison, a film that, though shot in 2001, had been shelved for more than three years before hitting theaters today.
Back when Caviezel made his decision, no one suspected that Bryan Singer’s big gamble would become the best blockbuster franchise of the recent comic-book adaptation surge. At the time,Madison might have seemed like a wise choice. That’s a shame. As action movies go, the X-Menflicks are bursting with creativity, passion, and directorial imagination, and they’re surprisingly meaningful and relevant. Madison, on the other hand, is flat, formulaic, and forgettable.
It’s hard not to wonder if William Brindley’s lackluster movie about hydroplane racing was shelved because of its flaws. It may be that it’s coming to theatres now only because the name “Caviezel” is popular with a sizeable audience, thanks to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Madison is revving with good intentions, but it runs a predictable course with no distinct style to set it apart. And it’s a hero story that asks us to accept some rather questionable decisions.
The true story of hydroplane hero Jim McCormick certainlysounds matinee-worthy. In 1971, Madison, Indiana was a coal-mining community in an economic crisis. Woolworths was closing, and Midwest Barge and Coal was losing laborers to better jobs elsewhere, making the town “obsolete.” The best local option for recreation and distraction was the Ohio River, perfect for hydroplane races. When the opportunity to host a major hydroplane championship—the Gold Cup—ignited the ambitions of local hydroplane enthusiasts, boating fans witnessed an against-all-odds success story on national television.
John Mellencamp provides nostalgic narration as Mike McCormick, reminiscing about his legendary father Jim (Caviezel), a former hydroplane pilot and a decent, simple soul who takes on the burden of saving the town. Jim’s heart bleeds for his frustrated neighbors and their lifestyle and tradition, which are threatened by the shift in the transportation industry from waterways to roads. He decides to lead the fight for Madison’s right to host the Gold Cup. First he must raise the $50,000 deposit necessary to host the race, or else the pressure applied by the villainous San Diego and corporate interests will spoil the fun. Second, he must prepare the community-owned hydroplane—Miss Madison—for its chief competition: the slick, cutting-edgeMiss Budweiser. Through his efforts, he also finds an opportunity to face his fears, work through a loss, and show his son what some guts, determination, and mechanical skills can accomplish.
Despite its weaknesses, Madison is made watchable by James Glennon’s cinematography, by its period authenticity (complete with clips from ABC’s “Wide World of Sports”), and by the earnest efforts of its cast. Caviezel portrays Jim as convincingly solemn and principled. As the narrator’s younger self, Jake Lloyd shows about the same range of emotion and talent that he exhibited as young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace. (Make of that what you will.) Performing the thankless task of Jim’s shortsighted wife Bonnie, Mary McCormack (yes, a McCormack playing a McCormick) invests her bland dialogue with emotion and personality. Big screen veteran Bruce Dern brings wry humor to his cookie-cutter role of the Wise Old Man, the Yoda of hydroplane racing who shows up with crucial know-how when the going gets tough.
Some moviegoers concerned about the lack of good clean family films will respond with hearty applause. Aside from a scene in which one character reprimands another for swearing, the language is as tame as the action. You can tell the good children of hydroplane racers from the bad children of hydroplane racers—how? The bad children go to R-rated movies!
But just because a film lacks profanity, sex, and violence doesn’t mean it’s blameless. Unlike John Sayles’ Sunshine State, which struck a healthy balance in its portrayal of an American community and its growing pains, highlighting the pros and cons of change, Madison only reinforces stereotypes that “old-fashioned” means “good” while “modern” means “bad.” The Home-Cooked Good Guys are earthy, earnest, innocent small-town folk, and the Big City Bad Guys sneer, snarl, mock, behave with merciless arrogance, and—gasp—have long, slick hair.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about Madison is what it says—or doesn’t say—about marriage, family, and responsibility. We’re supposed to sympathize with McCormick and root for him when his wife questions the sanity of investing so much time and energy into an extremely risky gamble. Bonnie’s made to look narrow-minded as she worries for her family and her future, and her baby cries on cue to emphasize just how tough things are for our visionary hero. When Jim faces his community in a town meeting and makes a rash and dishonest declaration, he’s celebrated as courageous and clever. And of course, who’s going to question his priorities when he takes life-threatening risks in hopes of winning that trophy? What is this film saying about the priorities of a husband and father?
By the logic of the film, the race must happen in Madison and be won at all costs. Even the local church prioritizes the race above all else, investing the offering plate funds in a nationally televised sporting event. When Bruce Dern exclaims, “You know, this is really becoming ridiculous!” late in the film, you might be inclined to agree with him.
That is, if you’re thinking at all. The movie seems determined to give our gray matter a rest. When the narration isn’t spoon-feeding us with information, the soundtrack cues act as emotional subtitles, and close-ups of facial expressions instruct us as to how we should feel about each new development. When a racing boat stalls on the water, we hear the engine die; we see the smoke; we see a lot of crowd reaction shots of shock, dismay, disappointment; even the music groans. And then, in case we missed it, someone remarks, “He stalled it!”
Formulas can be interesting when the filmmakers invest something original or unusual in them, or when the typical targets are struck with flair and enthusiasm. One of the finest entries in the sports-championship genre was based on another Indiana legacy—a slam-dunk called Hoosiers. Madisonfalters at almost every opportunity—even the big finale. The climactic race isn’t anything remarkable. You’ll wish little Anakin Skywalker would put on his helmet and get out there to show the rest of them what podracing is all about.
The experience becomes one of merely waiting for a series of inevitables. In a film where the hero spends the bulk of the film preparing for a national championship, who would guess that it culminates with a championship race? With so much focus on the fears and ghosts holding our hero back from getting behind the wheel himself, what are the chances he’ll be back in the saddle when duty calls? Who would expect that those old ghosts will haunt him during the heat of the race? Will the little boy with big hydroplane dreams get his wish in the end? Will the Big City Bad Guys get their comeuppance? And what about that secret button in the Miss Madisonthat’s reportedly very dangerous—is there any chance someone will have the courage to use it when it matters most?
Thus, despite the formidable talents of its cast, Madison is only mediocre entertainment. It’s exactly what many moviegoers want—90 challenge-free minutes that are as easy to swallow as the popcorn, and as artificial as the buttery goo on top of it. But if you want the thrill of a race, try ESPN, where the excitement is full of surprises and you can’t easily guess the outcome ahead of time. And if you want real drama, there are plenty of superior choices. Including X-Men.