I have a confession to make. Before I started to watch John Hyams’ documentary Rank, the only knowledge I had of professional bull riding came from watching films like Junior Bonner and J.W. Coop. I had never heard of the Professional Bull Riding World Championship, held in Las Vegas every October. After spending 90 minutes following the three top riders over the course of the 2004 championship, I’m now much better educated. I was expecting big, bluff, macho cowboy stereotypes with big hats and belt buckles the size of their heads. What I got came as a surprise.
Hyams’ film follows Brazilian-born rancher Adriano Moraes, third-generation rider Justin McBride and born-again Christian Mike Lee through the gruelling 7 day competition as they try for the title and the million dollar prize money. They are all without exception, fairly low-key, very focused individuals, and extremely personable. 34 year old Moraes, one of the oldest riders and top ranked going into the contest, has been riding professionally since the age of 18. He’s a two time World Champion already and has the scars to show for it. In one telling scene, the softly-spoken Moraes matter-of-factly catalogues his injuries: he’s broken bones in his nose, cheeks, shoulders, and legs; dislocated his elbow; suffered torn triceps; and been gored through the stomach. He’s lost count of the number of metal pins and screws holding his bones together.
McBride, 25, is following a family tradition. His grandfather died in the ring at the age of 48. He has no interest in the bulls beyond the ride, describing them as a “pain in the ass. They’re like a 20 year old kid with a 3 year old mentality – they just want to tear up shit, and they’re big and strong enough to do it”. He’s shown riding with a busted ankle, hobbling away from the bulls at the end of each ride. Lee on the other hand says his “only talent is livestock”. At 21 he’s the youngest of the three riders, and has already suffered a cracked skull and seriously damaged his sight in one eye.
We get brief glimpses of these men’s lives away from the ring: Moraes with his wife and children, who are already following in their father’s footsteps; McBride strumming his guitar, giving a somewhat shaky rendition of a risqué country song, visiting his grandmother; Lee with his wife (they married when he was 19 and she was 17), and his church group. We’re also taken behind the scenes with a look at the business behind the riding, specifically with the D&H Cattle Company of Oklahoma. Owners Dillon & H.D. Page take a great pride in their bulls, one of which, Mudslinger, has won the Bull of the Year award three times running.
But the film really comes alive with the rides themselves. The rider is required to hold on for at least 8 seconds to score any points. They score for the length and form of the ride, and also the quality of the bull they’re riding. It’s in these moments that the dangerous nature of this most extreme sport becomes apparent. We see riders slammed, stomped and stretchered out of the ring. The film is structured so that the rides are intercut with the other behind the scenes footage, and title cards showing Day One, Day Two etc keep the tension building until the finale. It becomes apparent that the riders themselves don’t really see each other as rivals – the real contest is the rider versus the bull. And 8 seconds can be a very long time. Moraes comments that riding a bull isn’t like riding a horse: once a horse bucks you off it only wants to run away – the bull wants to come after you.
Enter what used to be known as the rodeo clown (and also dress as such) but are now called bodyguards. These are the guys whose job it is to distract the angry 2000 lb bull so the rider can leave, or be carried out of, the ring. We meet Rob Smets, who has been doing the job for 27 years, during which he’s broken his neck twice and been gored once. “It’s like boxing”, he says. “No matter how good you are, sooner or later you’re gonna get hit. Then you find out what God gave you for a heart”.
This is one of the most fascinating, compelling, tense, gripping documentaries I’ve seen. For the bull riding fan, there’s enough of an insight into what goes on outside the ring. And for the casual viewer looking for something different, this certainly fits the bill. You will be drawn in, and you will care about these three people. Give it a shot – you won’t be disappointed.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, this is mostly a very good looking transfer. There are one or two moments of slight shimmer, but the picture is generally sharp and clean.
The mostly dialogue driven audio track is very well presented (although only a standard stereo track). The film features some very atmospheric music (wisely avoiding stereotypical country music) and this is crisp and clear.
Extras include a look at the recording sessions featuring Unseen Hand putting together the atmospheric music that is such a key part of the film, a fascinating look at how the actual sounds of the bulls and the rides were recorded (due to the very loud music played, only 10% of the sound recorded at the actual event was useable – the remaining 90% had to be recreated afterwards), and an entertaining and informative commentary featuring director John Hyams, producer Jon Greenhalgh and co-producer and sound guy Neil Fazzary.