Starring: Mark Zupan, Joe Soares, Keith Cavell, Andy Cohn, Scott Hogsett, Bob Lujano
Directed by: Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro
Murderball is a documentary based on the sport of wheelchair rugby (which was originally known as murderball). The sport is a brash, full-contact, collision-based sport played by quadriplegics in modified Mad Max-inspired wheelchairs, presented by directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro as an intense, in-your-face affair. As the athletes in the documentary attest, these are no Special Olympians looking for a hug, they're Paralympians, battling for gold medals.
On the surface, Murderball is a sports documentary, following Team USA from an unlikely loss at the World Championships to the 2004 Athens Paralympics, pitting them against the wheelchair rugby team from Canada, and an old friend turned foe. Canada is coached by former Team USA star Joe Soares, the Lance Armstrong of wheelchair rugby in the United States, who dominated the sport until old age caught up to him and he was cut from the team. Taking his knowledge with him up north, Soares helps lead Team Canada past the Americans in the World Championships, the first such loss in the Americans history. Most of Team USA see Soares, a brash, cocky, authoritative figure, as a traitor, and the rivalry between he and the intense, tattooed Mark Zupan, star of Team USA (and subject of the movie poster) is played up throughout the film in typical sports film style. Round one in the movie went to Soares, setting up an eventual clash at the Olympics.
However, beyond the standard sports movie structures of losses, grudges, and battles for redemption, the movie is more about the lives of the men who play quad rugby, and how the sport has helped them take control of their lives. In fact, the sports portions of the movie are fairly pedestrian, and not all that memorable. Instead, it is the look into the lives of the players that gives Murderball its power, answering questions and tackling misconceptions many of us have about quadriplegics. The first misconception is that quadriplegics have no use of their limbs, which is untrue. The definition of a quadriplegic is someone who has lost mobility in all four limbs, not necessarily one who has no mobility in their limbs. There are different levels of paralysis, some of which allow the athletes some control of their arms and hands. Players are assigned point levels based on their level of paralysis (1 to 3), with limit on the total number of points allowed on the court at a given time (so, you couldn't just stack your team with threes).
The two big questions when it comes to paralysis invariably end up being how someone became paralysed, and can they have sex? Both are answered frankly, and, for the latter, a little graphically (an instructional video is shown). Some of the players became quadriplegics due to disease, like Soares who contracted polio as a child, others as a result of accidents, like Zupan, who was thrown from the flatbed of his buddy's truck when he passed out in it drunk, and his friend, driving home drunk, swerved and threw him from the truck. Zupan spent the next 14 hours in a canal, holding onto a branch until being rescued by a passerby.
The highlight of the film comes from a side-story involving a non-rugby player, Keith Cavell. Recently paralysed in a motorcross accident, the film follows Cavell as he attempts to rehab through his paralysis and return his life to some level of normalcy. When he is finally released from the hospital, he returns home and the enormity of his situation hits hard. His normal life will never be "normal" again, and everything that once was is a painful reminder to him of that fact. You can feel all the hope in him start to die out, until he has a chance to meet Zupan at a speaking engagement. As Zupan describes the sport, you can see Cavell begin to brighten up, and realise that while his life has unquestionably changed, it need not be over. When Cavell gets a chance to try out Zupan's modified warrior's chair, a new sense of life fills Cavell, who desperately wants to get out there and start banging into someone. It's a beautifully understated moment, that stands as one of the most powerful film scenes of 2005.
It's this power that makes Murderball a treat to watch. It's a short film (88 minutes), that moves at the breakneck pace of the sport itself. Like the best documentaries, it is as entertaining as it is informative, with moments of true power the likes of which only non-fiction can provide. However, it is a rough movie, and not just because some of its participants wind up crashed on gym floors. The camera work at times is shoddy (even by documentary standards), and the game footage is functional at best. It's a film that is worth your time to see, but not quite as good as one might hope. A good film with an interesting topic, but not a great film.
Related (other documentary reviews):
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Grizzly Man (2005)
March of the Penguins (2005)