Written by James Redford
Directed by Xavier Koller
Even though I live in the northeast, I confess to being a fan of bullriding and the rodeo in general. It’s just something about the romantic side of cowboys that still draws me once a year to Nassau Coliseum when the PBR (Professional Bull Riders) come to town. I actually embarrassed my husband once in the Orlando Airport when we were on one of the monorails with bullriders I recognized from TV.
The movie Ring of Fire is also known under the title Cowboy Up. It got little attention except from rodeo buffs like myself. Unfortunately, it never came to a theater near me. I don’t think it ever came to a theater near anyone. That’s a shame because it’s a pretty fine film.
Of course, if you are someone who has a problem with bullriding and the rodeo, you will not enjoy the film. In fact, you can just pretty much stop reading right about now.
Ring of Fire tells the story of two brothers, Hank and Ely Braxton (portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland and Marcus Thomas). Hank is a former bullrider turned rodeo clown and is in the hall of fame for rodeo clowns. Ely is on the bullriding circuit and gets mauled pretty badly by a bull after he is thrown. He comes home from the hospital with part of his skull missing.
Molly Ringwald portrays Ely’s girlfriend Connie. Hank and Ely’s mother, Rose (portrayed by Melinda Dillon) agrees with Connie that this is a good time for Ely to stop riding bulls.
Hank is trying to establish himself as a provider of bulls to the rodeos. He is also teaching up-and-comers what he knows about bullriding. Both men have the demon of their father to deal with, who was also a famous bullrider. A series of flashbacks is shown as Ely’s memories of when his mother ran his father off of the ranch after he made a young Ely shoot a dog that had become injured while Hank stood by believing the pup could be saved.
What’s nice here is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of competition or conflict between the brothers at this time. Hank is content being a rodeo clown and working on the stock contract. He is not envious or jealous of his brother as he is on the edge of fame. Likewise, Ely seems to genuinely love his brother.
However, whether it’s because of his injury or just “growing pains”, Ely is changing. At times he seems like he’s becoming more like his father. When he starts riding again, Hank agrees to cover for him, but Rose and Connie soon learn of it. He and Connie break up. Ely shows more signs of recklessness which eventually lead him into getting into a fight in a bar where he hits his head on a pool table. The doctors warn him not to ride any more bulls, but he’s not about to listen.
Hank is smitten by Celia (portrayed by Darryl Hannah). She is a beautiful woman who rides the circuit doing all sorts of promotions. Hank is awkward around Celia, and in short order we see Celia setting her sights on the younger brother, Ely. To his credit, Ely seems not to notice at first. When he does realize, he is resistant at first, but then succumbs to temptation. This causes a rift between the brothers for the first time in their lives.
The climax of the movie has both brothers going to Vegas. Hank is bringing his bull that no one can ride – Zapata. Ely is there for the championship. Predictably, they do wind up working out the differences between them. Hank also helps Ely locate their father.
I’m not going to say any more since I don’t want to give away the ending. While it is some ways predictable, it also surprised me a great deal.
Kiefer Sutherland is perfect as the generally laid-back brother Hank. His smoothness and easy-going manner come across very well and we can see the young boy in the flashback turn into the man on the screen. Hank is self-assured in every area of his life except women, and the only one he seems to fancy he loses to his younger brother.
Marcus Thomas gives a decent performance as Ely. He takes Ely on a journey of self-discovery about what’s important and what matters; about dealing with the demons of our past. Particularly poignant is the scene in a trailer between Ely and his father, Reid (portrayed by Pete Postlethwaite) as he realizes that his father doesn’t even know who he is. Here is a man who was an award-winning bullrider and he doesn’t even keep up with the sport enough to know that his son is on the brink of being champion.
Molly Ringwald is, well, Molly Ringwald. I have always thought her to be a bit whiny at times, although here it seems to fit the character of Connie.
Darryl Hannah plays a beautiful airhead seemingly with no morals – not much of a stretch.
Xavier Koller directed the film and created some beautiful shots of the bulls in the arena. He uses slow-motion rather than real-time to show the action, especially in regards to Ely’s rides, and it works very well. The cinematographer must also be given credit for some great shots of the bulls, plus some beautiful scenes on the Braxton ranch.
A little trivia tidbit here, I noticed the name “Al Corley” listed as one of the producers when the credits were rolling in the beginning. I knew the name as one of the actors who portrayed Steven Carrington on Dynasty, but didn’t know if it was the same person. It was, and he has a brief cameo in the film as Connie’s boss, a veterinarian.
If you’re a fan of the rodeo, you’ll enjoy this film. It’s a good depiction of bullriding, as well as a nice, character-driven story about two brothers. The acting of the main characters is good, the supporting actors are decent, and the photography is excellent.
For a film that was never released in theaters, it was a nice surprise.
Written by James Redford