You can romanticize the rodeo, as Cliff Robertson did 23 years ago in J.W. Coop, or you can use it to show how modern life has trivialized the mythic skills of cowboys, as Sam Peckinpah did in Junior Bonner and Sydney Pollack did in The Electric Horseman.
But you can't reduce the rodeo and its raw-boned practitioners to TV-movie shlock and get away with it.
That's the problem with 8 Seconds, a sappy tearjerker that purports to tell the tale of Lane Frost, a sensitive young Oklahoma bull-rider who rose to world champion before being gored to death five years ago at Cheyenne Frontier Days. There's a fascinating story here somewhere, but neither teen TV idol Luke Perry, who's been miscast as Frost, nor journeyman director John G. Avildsen, who's lost whatever edge he used to have, is much good at finding it.
That failure goes double for screenwriter Monte Merrick (Memphis Belle, Mr. Baseball), who's turned into a veritable cliche factory. Combine another silent, demanding father (James Rebhorn) no son can please, another snorting bull no cowboy can ride and another loyal young wife (Cynthia Geary) that no loving leads astray, and Merrick just about sews up the rodeo soap-opera championship. These may have been among the gloomy, commonplace facts of Lane Frost's life, but they're rendered in such generic style that he might as well have been a hardware man from Cleveland or a pipe-fitter in Oakland.
Director Avildsen, who apparently never got over the unexpected success of Rocky, has repeated himself ever since with old-fashioned underdog movies like Lean on Me and The Karate Kid. But until now, at least they looked and felt like movies. 8 Seconds is sheer boob tube, from the actorish posing of its well-scrubbed, synthetic young cast to the processed prettiness of cinematographer Victor Hammer's shimmering sunsets and teasing love scenes. You don't know where the soft-drink spot ends and the rodeo begins.
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In short, this effort could use a little more grit, a little more giddyup, even a little more cow dung. Instead the rough-and-tumble machismo of the pro circuit, supposedly exemplified by Frost's buddies Tuff Hedeman (Stephen Baldwin) and Cody Lambert (Red Mitchell), comes off like a Ralph Lauren ad campaign. Perry, the cover boy of Beverly Hills 90210, tries an Oklahoma twang and takes his shirt off a lot, but that doesn't compensate for his grave deficiencies as an actor: If paint-by-numbers has a dramatic equivalent, that's what we see here as Perry struggles to portray a sensitive, soft-spoken teetotaler from the prairie who finally earns the respect of the hardened rodeo world.
The red-headed Geary, another TV fugitive on loan from her regular waitress role on Northern Exposure, doesn't cut it on the big screen, either: As Kellie Frost, the barrel-racer-turned-wife, she's pretty, pretty empty and pretty unconvincing.
There's some abrupt, confused editing, some mismatched arena footage cut into the new stuff and some truly incompetent acting in this stock tale. But Merrick's awful dialogue really wins the buckle. "How'd you get the name Tuff?" Mrs. Frost asks. And then listens to the answer. Later, between flossing his teeth and combing his hair, Perry must deliver a line that even he can't make any worse.
"Rodeo isn't just about winnin' and losin'," our new-age bull rider explains in his dialogue-coach drawl. "It's about helpin' others so they can be their best, too."
Right, pardner. In that moment, 8 Seconds seems like eight hours.