'I'd rather be able to grab my meat than a toothbrush.' Scott Hogsett, Team USA
Cinematographer/codirector Henry Alex Rubin and producer/writer/codirector Dana Adam Shapiro travelled to the 2002 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships in Gothenburg Sweden to find subjects for a documentary based on a magazine article Shapiro had written. Twelve countries competed there, but it was the intense rivalry between the U.S. and Canada that provided most of the drama and two antagonistic Americans, lead U.S. player Mark Zupan and Canadian coach Joe Soares, who added the star power. Zupan, who looks like a Mad Max style gladiator in his armored wheelchair, tells us his sport was originally named by the Canadians as "Murderball."
You may think you're not interested in a bunch of quadriplegics playing rugby, but "Murderball" is about the lives of the people who do and it is one of the funniest, intense and most refreshing films of the year. These handicapped guys are not out to inspire you - they're out to crush you.
The game itself is arranged as the film's opening, midpoint (a Vancouver game for Olympics seeding) and climax (2004 Athens Olympics), as well as the jumping off point for factual data and character introduction. We learn that quadriplegics are not paralyzed, per se, but have impairment in all four limbs. The players are rated for their mobility - the guys with the most handle the ball while the guys with the least are defensive tackles. (Most players have broken necks - the higher in the spine the injury occurred, the less mobility the man will have.) The game is tough, like bumper cars on steroids, and wheelchairs and their occupants are upended frequently and violently.
Of more interest than the game, though, are the guys who play it. Mark Zupan, who is quickly becoming a media star because of this film, has a shaved head, goatee, and a lean, muscular body decorated with tattoos. 'Hit me, I'll hit back' he assures us, but the guy isn't all about anger. He's got a sexy girlfriend (these guys are very into sex and the filmmakers pause for an amusing and frank discussion with a group of them) and he sets out to heal the friendship that was deep-sixed when his best friend was driving drunk, unaware that Mark had passed out in his truck bed, and got into the accident that cost Mark his ability to walk.
Joe Soares is arguably the best player the sport ever had, but he's also a difficult man who rides his unathletic son hard. When Joe failed to make the U.S. team, he took out his anger by becoming the coach for Canada's. 'How's it feel to betray your country?' Zupan asks Joe, not mincing words, then tells the us 'If Joe was on the side of the road and on fire I wouldn't piss on him to put him out.' Joe's the kind of guy who returns his wife's wedding anniversary toast with one for Team Canada and tells the team they're his boys within earshot of his son. This 'Great Santini' clone reevaluates his relationships after a heart attack, but his passion for the game never abates.
They're not the only two profiled, of course. There's Scott Hogsett, who meets the woman he eventually married during filming and who tells the most hilariously embarrassing story about a nurse's excitement over his functioning sexual organ. Bob Lujano is a quadruple amputee who can eat pizza with his elbows and incorporates his compact shape into the best practical jokes. Keith Cavill, a former Motocross enthusiast, provides the bridge that shows the hardship and depression that can accompany rehabilitation after a severe accident. Meeting Mark Zupan gives him a new reason for living ('It feels like I'm a battering ram!' exults Keith trying Zupan's chair).
The filmmakers introduce the teams with fast, low flying zooms and the games are edited with nail-biting suspense (Canada and the U.S. seem to beat each other by one second in the final seconds of each game they play). They capture intimate conversations from a distance, getting some real character defining moments without being in their subjects' faces. I was only frustrated by their decision to ignore what injuries are caused by the game itself and a last minute credit scrawl saying Joe had been fired by Canada (why?!).
"Murderball" is a documentary that is heavy metal not only in soundtrack, but in spirit. It's also a great profile for the Paralympics - NOT, as one disgusted participant points out, the Special Olympics. 'We're not going for a hug, we're going to win gold.'
Everyone automatically feels bad for wheelchair-bound paraplegics and treat the “poor souls” as useless cripples. Documentary filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro shatter this misconception as they follow the US and Canada wheelchair rugby teams in a two and a half year journey that shows these souls as anything but crippled, especially in the mind, in Murderball.”
The title of this excellent, thought provoking documentary comes from the name that the tough players of the Paralympic wheelchair rugby teams have given their tough, demanding sport. At first, the viewer is disheartened to see these damaged, sometimes limbless men struggling with the day to day things we take for granted. Then they get into the milieu of their game and, unexpectedly, you begin to develop an enormous respect for these men and what they have accomplished with the traumatized lives.
The film focuses on two of the players, Mark Zupan, the player-leader of the American team, and Joe Soares, a former American team player let go because of age only to become the coach for the Canadian team – an act that causes his former teammates to declare Joe a Benedict Arnold and traitor. The film follows the teams through the two-plus years of training in anticipation of participating in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, an event that takes place two weeks after the “official” international Olympic games.
Rubin and Shapiro expend little wasted effort as they record the hard training, teamwork and rivalry with the principle opponent as we learn about how the teams grade their players and combine their numbers so that, when fielded, both sides have an even playing field. The Canada versus US rivalry is the key point of Murderball” and they show us a competitive world where a man without arms and legs can still kick serious butt on the rugby floor.
But “Murderball” isn’t just about Mark and Joe. While they are the main figures followed by the docu cameras, the other players’ stories are told and we get to know them as people and individuals. One young man, Keith Cavill, crushed his spine in a motocross accident and the documakers follow his slow, arduous return to a “normal” life. He struggles with the painful progress he must make but we also see the cathartic effect the game has on him to strive to get as healthy as he can. There is a touching moment, too, when Zupan presents the new paraplegic with his very own, kick ass rugby wheelchair. This unique brotherhood of players is an inspiration for anyone who thinks their own problems are bad.
Rubin and Shapiro, along with their well-paced footage of the players and their games, gives the viewer a bit of an education on spinal injury and use diagrams of how the game is played, involving the viewer at a deeper, more thoughtful level.
When we talk, in this post-9/11 world, of bravery and heroes, let’s not forget that there are many ways to be brave and be a hero. The filmmakers give us commendable insight into a world that I, for one, would not have given a second thought. “Murderball” has changed all that and makes me thank my lucky stars for good health and a tremendous respect for the game’s players. I give it an A.
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