Rated R, 85 min. Directed by Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 22, 2005
In action, they look like gladiators from some warped Mad Max: Beyond the Velodrome concept, but they are instead the men of quadriplegic rugby, a sport nicknamed "murderball" before adopting the legitimacy of international recognition and competition at the Paralympics in Athens. Strapped securely into tricked-out wheelchairs encased with full-metal hubcaps, these contestants collide into one another as if they were driving bumper cars while trying to keep the ball in play. The rules of the unfamiliar sport are explained at the beginning of the film, yet before viewers can settle in for a straightforward sports documentary, Murderball switches gears and takes us in unexpected directions. For sure, this is a movie about jocks, with all their ardor and devotion to the sport on full display, as well as their fanaticism and some of the nastier aspects of competitive personalities. There are rifts within the quad rugby community, especially between the members of the American team and one of their former players, Joe Soares, who took a position as coach of the Canadian team when he no longer qualified for the American team. His former teammates regard him as a traitor, but Joe's emotional wounds from the disqualification are deep. Murderball also follows the background stories of some of the key players, including Joe, whose displeasure with his violin-playing, nonjock son is palpable. The captain of the American team is Mark Zupan, an Austin resident, whose story of how he became a quadriplegic involves an unwitting accident that also involved his best friend, and the film captures some of their hard-fought journey back to friendship. Murderball is deftly structured so that these personal sagas are intercut with game footage that builds dramatically to the high point of competition in Athens. These quad athletes take pains to let us know that the Paralympics are true Olympics-level competition rather than the "feel good, everyone's a winner" tone of events like the Special Olympics. It's clear that for many, the ability to compete in the brutal sport has been a balm to their emotional recovery. And here's where Murderball goes where no documentary about the physically impaired has gone. By showing us intimate scenes of these guys in their homes, on the road, and out socializing, the movie also reveals the answers to many of the questions the able-bodied are too circumspect to ask. The movie opens with a scene that observes Zupan getting dressed, and allows us to witness, without politely glancing away, what exactly is involved in a mundane activity like getting dressed while in a chair. The teammates play cards, commit practical jokes, and talk about women. Yes, their penises work, they are quick to have us know, and in the process educate us about the correct meaning of the word quadriplegia. Murderball also distinguishes itself by presenting its subjects as neither objects of pitiable fate nor victims locked in an eternal struggle to overcome. Ironically, Zupan and others are the first to note that they have accomplished more in a wheelchair than they probably ever would have achieved as able-bodied individuals. Murderball is at its best when pricking these walls of public opinion, and co-directors Rubin and Shapiro deliver the rare documentary that totally entertains, informs, and inspires. (See "Zupan on Impact.")