When you are making a movie about bull riding, you have a lot to overcome. The sport itself is somewhat cyclical. Expect three outcomes: the rider will either fall off before 8 seconds, stays on longer than 8 seconds, or suffer a dreadful injury. These bull riders are modern gladiators so, unlike other subjects, they tend to be guarded. But the biggest challenge “Rank,” filmmaker John Hyams’ beautiful but challenging movie, faces is the enormous cultural gap between the fans of bull riding and the fans of documentary filmmaking.“Rank” focuses on three bull riders competing in Las Vegas for the Professional Bull Riding World Championship. The prize is a million big ones, and the showground is a packed arena. Each man offers a different perspective on his endeavors as he trains, nurses injuries, spends time with his family and fiercely tries to hang on for more than eight seconds.
The film also spends some time with the folks on the fringe, from the bull breeders to the “bodyguards” who protect the riders when they fall.
“Rank” is at it’s best when it focuses on the sport. Shots of bull riders preparing both mentally and physically for their ten seconds in front of the crowd are gripping and never become repetitive. The short rides themselves are also compelling, particularly the faces of the riders experiencing elation, frustration, and searing pain.
In fact, pain becomes a character in and of itself. This is a brutal sport where every athlete carries a scar or a mark of from a major wound. Broken bones, hemorrhages, torn muscles and cracked skulls are simply realities that these men carry like war wounds. It seems that an element of masochism exists in these men, and more than once we see them elated by the prospect of injury or death.
The film does suffer from some pretty serious flaws. Hyams tries to inject depth by inserting moody tuneless music that detracts from the film’s natural atmosphere. The personal lives of these men do not match the intensity of their sport. It’s not that they are not charismatic. They are extremely likable. It’s just that they don’t offer a lot of insight into their feelings, thoughts and desires.So does “Rank” break the 8-second barrier? I found it pretty compelling stuff, but whether or not “Rank” grips you depends solely on whether or not bull riding grabs you by the horns.