BUM STEER

The title is 8 Seconds, which refers to the length of time a rodeo bull rider must remain on the bull's back in order to qualify in the competition. It's also approximately the length of time that this little movie is likely to linger in your memory after you've seen it.

TV hunk Luke Perry stars as Lane Frost, an Okie bull-riding champ who, already popular, became legendary when, barely into his 20s, he was killed by a bull in 1989. This is the grim reality of rodeo--the bull always wins. Death may be a relative rarity, but injury is inevitable and often severe. It's less a sport than a formalized dare, and while willingness to take that dare can be lucrative (and undoubtedly does one no harm in the eyes of the cowgirls), it can also be lethal or at least debilitating.

But John G. Avildsen, the director of 8 Seconds, isn't much for grim reality. He uses the trappings of naturalism, and sometimes he uses them skillfully--his direction of the original Rocky was pleasingly modest, even witty, compared to the sickening self-canonization of the Sylvester Stallone-directed sequels. But Avildsen always employs naturalistic technique in the service of "go for it" uplift. He makes what are sometimes called "feel-good movies," although some of us actually find their fraudulence quite depressing.

So Avildsen's energy is directed here at finding a way to make the story of a nice, likable kid getting himself killed in a pointlessly dangerous activity uplifting and inspirational. The result is, of course, a castrated movie. Avildsen is so intent on showing us what a fine, all-American boy Lane was that the director forgets to show us the dumb, addictive, macho thrill of bull riding. We wouldn't need to like or even to fully approve of rodeo to get a cinematic kick out of its brute excitement, but Avildsen's bull-riding scenes don't give us this. They're nothing we couldn't see on ESPN.

What we get, instead, is a wan love story. Cynthia Geary plays Lane's long-suffering wife, Kellie, who stands by her man through thick and thin, even obliging him with a single episode of adultery to assuage his guilt when he takes a brief turn into philandering. Geary, a huge-eyed blond woman whose radiant, strapping healthiness gives her a certain beauty, has none of the wonderfully artless comic sense here that she shows on TV's Northern Exposure. There, she's a funny, lovably commonsensical ditz; here, she's just a doormat.

As for Perry, he does what's asked of him; that is, he smiles and acts nonthreatening and sweet. He's such an old-fashioned notion of the sensitive, pure-hearted cowboy that one half-expects him to break into a boy-tenor rendition of "Don't Fence Me In." As mature screen lovers, he and Geary make Frankie and Annette look like Nick and Nora Charles. The producers may be hoping the film will be a hit with preteens.

A bit of compensatory funkiness is provided by Red Mitchell and Stephen Baldwin as Lane's pals. Baldwin, the ugliest of his clan--he's far uglier than Richard "Tuff" Hedeman, the real-life cowboy he plays--showed, as the token good-guy white in Posse, that he may also be the liveliest. Likewise, as the rowdy sidekick in 8 Seconds, he provides most of what little energy the film has.

 
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