Trying to ride an angry two-ton bull takes courage, strength, wiles and perhaps just a bit of insanity. Then again, you probably knew that already. Even so, it is still astonishing -- and a little sobering -- to hear 21-year-old bull rider Mike Lee quietly proclaim that he's ready to die if fatally injured while participating in the sport he loves. That's dedication.
The scene is fairly indicative of Rank. Expertly told and thoroughly compelling, the 2006 documentary focuses on bull riders competing at the 2004 Professional Bull Riders (PBR) world finals held in Las Vegas, Nev. In so doing, director John Hyams illuminates a subculture about which most people might know next to nothing.
The film zeroes in on a trio of top bull riders. While the three share a talent for risking life and limb, each competitor has a distinct personality. Mike Lee, a devout Christian, is an earnest and tight-lipped Texan. Twenty-five-year-old Justin McBride is a cowboy from Elk City, Oklahoma, a raucous good ol' boy with a fondness for hunting, beer and David Allan Coe songs. The old pro of the group, 34-year-old Brazilian-born Adriano Morales, is a two-time PBR champion with a gift for playing to the crowd.
Rank packs an emotional investment that elevates it far above most sports documentaries. There is plenty of bone-crunching, fence-slamming action here -- this is bull riding, after all -- but the filmmakers also let us get to know Lee, McBride and Morales on their respective home turfs. One particularly endearing character is McBride's grandmother, a spunky old woman who fancies herself a real spitfire. As the interview progresses, however, the woman's tough exterior evaporates. She touches on the untimely death of her son (Justin's father), who died from a bull-riding injury, and she admits that often she cannot bring herself to watch Justin's competitions. "Bad business, that bull ridin'," his grandmother says, choking back tears.
They all appear to be decent and likable folks, as are most of the people we meet in Rank. In addition to the riders and their families, we learn about the grizzled bull fighters tasked with the job of keeping competitors from being gored. And we even hear from Dillon and H.D. Page, an Oklahoma father and son who breed top-ranked bulls that "kick the hardest, spin the fastest and jump the highest."
While there is a certain reverence paid to the riders, the movie does not ignore the fine line that exists between gutsiness and recklessness. Rank does not gloss over the dangers inherent in riding animals that, as Justin McBride puts it, "just wanna tear up shit." Most of the riders have suffered broken bones and serious lacerations, the souvenirs of trying to stay on top of a bull for at least eight seconds. Concussions comprise 10 to 15 percent of all riding-related injuries. When Adriano Morales matter-of-factly points out his collection of scars, one is reminded of Quint, the crusty shark-hunter portrayed by Robert Shaw in Jaws -- only this guy is real.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture quality of Rank is clean and clear, with realistic skin tones and a balanced color palette. There are no noticeable defects such as pixilation, smearing or combing.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is solid, with no drop-off or distortion. Spanish subtitles are available.
The DVD features a fantastic commentary with director Hyams, producer Jon Greenhalgh and co-producer/"sound guy" Neil Fazzary. Hyams is particularly informative, taking the viewer through many of the artistic decisions that went into this stellar documentary.
The Unseen Hand: Recording the Music for Rank (10:06) details the improvisational jam sessions that led to the film's unique, evocative soundtrack.
Cowtown: Bull Riding Sessions is an eight-minute, 27-second featurette that demonstrates how the filmmakers added audio effects to some of the bull-riding action captured in the PBR world championships. Due to the deafening crowd noise at the tournament, the filmmakers had to dub in additional sounds.
The supplemental material includes a theatrical trailer.
What's not to like? Rank is an intense, well-paced documentary that introduces you to eye-popping action, compelling characters and the fascinating world of professional bull riding. As the filmmakers' commentary makes clear, this was no hastily thrown-together work. Director John Hyams and company definitely know how to tell a story, and Rank is as solid a story as they come.