The cowboy remains the most enduring American movie hero. But he’s been battered and bruised over the years, and in the contemporary “The Ride,” it takes a passel of trouble to get him to show his true grit. A tad on the syrupy side, pic is an uplifting yarn about rodeo and kids aimed at families that should do well in the country’s heartland, where it has just entered regional release, and be a potent mover on video.
Produced by the Billy Graham organization — dormant on the feature front for more than a decade — the gentle saga gets across its moral points without laying it on too thick. The pic’s values are relatively straightfor-ward and universal, assuming one has had a smattering of religious training.
Smokey Banks (Michael Biehn) is a one-time bull-riding champ who’s seen considerably better days. A gambler and a boozer, he’s low on cash and running a high tab with a couple of mean hombres. Getting a bit too feisty in a bar, he winds up before a judge who sentences him to hard time in community service at a ranch camp for underprivileged and orphaned kids.
One of the brood, Danny (Brock Pierce) , knows the man’s history of triumphs and presses him to teach him how to stay in the saddle. The rest is relatively pro forma. Danny is an apt pupil despite the absence of a suitable steer to test his mettle and will go on to a compete at a junior dude’s event.
The variation on a familiar theme is that Danny is terminally ill, his baldness presumably a result of chemotherapy. His courage and faith slowly turn around the hard-bitten Smokey, who discovers that his problems are just a hill of beans compared with those of the valiant youngster. But more important, the saddle-weary cowpoke realizes that the kids look to him for guidance and wisdom. It’s something new for him, and a bond he enjoys.
Biehn gets a rare opportunity to shine as the reformed sinner. His character is initially bad, but not so far gone that he cannot be redeemed. Reining in what could have been an obvious performance, he anchors the pic when it threatens to lose its focus. Pierce is good as the slightly starry-eyed boy, but the rest of the cast is saddled with thinly sketched parts.
Writer-director Michael Sajbel has made a graceful and handsome picture in “The Ride.” Though he’s able to deftly navigate some tricky dramatic turns, he curiously drops the ball in more obvious areas. Where is the requisite scene in which Smokey teaches the boy to ride the bull? And why bother to film the kid’s comic rescue of the cowboy from loan sharks and use just a snippet of the hijinx? The film’s a decent programmer, but one can readily see how small changes would have elevated its emotional impact significantly.