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By Brad Wilke | November 1, 2008

To put it in context for those of you not familiar with PBR (professional bull riding, that is), think of it as Nascar’s younger brother. A few years ago, unless you were in the stands at the rodeo, the only place you could catch this exciting 8-second battle of man versus beast was on The Nashville Network (TNN). Nowadays, PBR has gotten so big that NBC is broadcasting it and Las Vegas is hosting it. In fact, it’s probably just a matter of time before your son (or daughter) is begging you for a mechanical bull in your backyard.

John Hyams made a documentary a few years back called “The Smashing Life,” about UFC fighter Mark Kerr. It was a harrowing, very personal look at the hard-knock life of a man designed for the sole purpose of breaking things. In many ways, he is more a kindred spirit to the bulls that the cowboys in “Rank,” Hyams most recent directorial effort, are trying to best. It seems like a natural transition, and one that Hyams pulls off with great skill, focusing less on the beasts and more on the men intent on taming them.

“Rank” follows three competitors as they pursue the crown during the 2004 professional bull riding championships. They include Mike Lee, a 21-year old devout Christian, Justin McBride, a third generation cowboy with bull riding in his blood and Adrian Moraes, the 2-time PBR world champion from Brazil. As the film progresses, you get to know each of these riders, witnessing their ups and downs on the circuit, as well as their personal histories and hopes of the future.

The personal stories of these new-school cowboys are the most interesting aspect of this documentary, none more so than Mike Lee’s grandmother, an old-school cowgirl that certainly warrants a documentary of her own as one of the first females to break broncos in the rodeo. She may be one of the few grandmothers for whom the cliché “tough as nails” can be applied literally.

These days, documentaries are big business (though that may soon become a thing of the past) and the most successful ones are structured like “underdog” narrative features (“Hoop Dreams”, “Heart of the Game” and “Strictly Ballroom” come immediately to mind). “Rank” is a well-made, engaging documentary that, though it doesn’t break new ground in its genre, fully deserves a place on the shelf next to the best of the bunch.

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