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Not everyone is a fan of documentaries...but every so often, a documentary serves up enough action, entertainment and drama to make it accessible to even the most staunch outsiders. Vassiliki Khonsari's Pulling John (2009) is one of the better entries into the well-worn "sports doc" sub-genre, at least in recent memory. Like 2007's fan favorite The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters or 2005's Murderball, Pulling John takes a relatively small sport and blows it up to mythical proportions, thanks to heated competition and plenty of colorful characters. Not that it doesn't deserve it, of course: arm wrestling is a centuries-old tradition that's quite popular in certain countries...which makes this documentary all the more revealing, since it's not exactly America's national sport. Arm wrestling is undoubtedly more physical than competitive gaming and more well-known than quadriplegic rugby, but that's not the point: this is a story about the people involved, not just the sport itself.
"Pulling", as we learn early on, is a nickname for the act of arm wrestling. "John", in this instance, refers to the most well-known and successful arm wrestler in recent decades: John Brzenk, who's been virtually undefeated since his professional career began in the late 1980s. John is a humble and low-key guy; not exactly what most people would picture when the words "successful arm wrestler" are put to use. Pulling John serves three purposes, however: it's a tribute to Brzenk's career, a brief history of arm wrestling and a reminder that younger competition is always ready to take over. Our competition arrives in the form of two hulking athletes; specifically, Travis Bagent (a burly West Virginian who's not afraid to intimidate his opponents) and Alexey Voyevoda (a soft-spoken but massive Olympic medalist from Russia). Both are physically imposing men with youth on their side...but Brzenk isn't going down easily, thanks to his near-unstoppable technique and almost superhuman strength.
Tension runs high during this 72-minute documentary, which does a fair job of providing background for our three main characters and building suspense for a 2004 tournament where they finally all compete against one another (and we get a much-needed Voyevoda-Bagent rematch). What's really interesting about Pulling John, though, is learning about the differences between each man, even though they share a similar passion for the sport. John is a revered legend who's battling the urge to finally retire---and as we eventually learn, got completely back on track after his participation in the film. Voyevoda trains in a run-down basement; his youthful perspective stands in contrast with his country's nationalistic pride for the sport. Bagent is colorful and cocky---and as much as fans might love to hate him, such an attitude undoubtedly engages the crowd and draws in plenty of new fans.
If there's one main problem with Pulling John, it's a lack of strong narrative storytelling. Don't get me wrong: it's relatively easy to keep track of what's going on from start to finish, but very little is given in the way of concrete dates and times. It's barely mentioned that this documentary was shot early in the decade and post-produced during the second half, which may cause some confusion the first time through. Such time references aren't always necessary to enjoy the film as a character study...but as an actual document of events, Pulling John could've done a more cohesive job. One can only assume that such a large window for shooting and production, when handled by a small production team, would be prone to some disorganization along the way.
Pulling John arrives on DVD courtesy of IndiePix...and while there's certainly a lot to like here, the disc itself isn't without a few minor problems. The technical presentation is somewhat questionable in certain areas, while the bonus features are slim but entertaining. Overall, this one-disc package isn't quite "sleeper hit of the year" material, but what's here should certainly satisfying documentary buffs and sports fans alike. Let's roll up our sleeves and take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Pulling John looks good but not overly impressive. Obviously, the footage varies in quality: several on-the-fly tournament sequences and vintage clips are of lesser quality, while a handful of segments suffer from very mild edge enhancement. Wide shots are typically soft, even during a handful of outdoor sequences. Oddly enough, vintage clips originally shot in 4:3 are presented in a variety of ways: some are moderately cropped, some are window-boxed and a few are even stretched to fill the screen (!). This was obviously a deliberate choice made by the production team...so it's not a technically a factor in the visual rating, but it's still an eyesore. Aside from the minor problems mentioned above, though, Pulling John doesn't look half-bad for an independent documentary.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix is more consistent---but to be fair, it aims a little lower than it should. Separation is strong and dialogue comes through clearly, never fighting for attention with the film's occasionally dramatic score. Even so, a few of the action-packed moments would've been more enveloping with crowd noise in the rear speakers. All things considered, though, it's an acceptable presentation given the circumstances. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles or Closed Captions are offered during the main feature or bonus material, though burnt-in subtitles are used for translation purposes.
Also here is a 50-minute collection of 16 Additional Scenes, presented individually with no "Play All" option. The audio commentary mentions several hundred hours of footage shot during a four-year period, so it's not surprising that these clips are all over the place. For the most part, we're treated to a handful of personal moments; one of the best is a rather heartfelt scene with Travis Bagent and his young son. Other highlights include a rough opening sequence, the explanation of a few arm-wrestling techniques, several John/Travis moments and a chat with former champ Cleve Dean, who appeared with Brzenk in Over The Top. Unfortunately, some of these deleted scenes, like portions of the main feature, were originally shot in 4:3 but are stretched horizontally to fill a 16:9 frame. Many of the interview clips are in pretty rough shape to begin with, and such a poor visual decision certainly doesn't improve the situation...but for what it's worth, fans should still check 'em out.
Closing things out is a trio of Theatrical Trailers, including a standard version, a rough cut and an extended version highlighting some of the key players in Pulling John. Previews for a pair of upcoming Indiepix titles are also included. Like the main feature, no optional Closed Captions or subtitles have been included during these extras. Disappointing, but expected.
Arm wrestling may not seem like a gripping subject (sorry), but Pulling John squeezes plenty of tension and excitement into just 72 minutes. Documentary buffs and sports fans alike should enjoy this accessible and entertaining portrait of competition---and no matter who you root for, all three stars get time in the spotlight. This one-disc DVD package isn't fully loaded but gets the job done, pairing an adequate technical presentation with a few entertaining and informative bonus features. All things considered, Pulling John is a rousing documentary that just about anyone should be able to get behind. Firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.