Murderball (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As a tale of human courage and personal triumph, Murderball works. As a sports documentary, it falls short of the mark. Fortunately, Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro's crowd-pleasing movie (it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance) is more about the former than the latter. The failure of the in-game sequences (which amount to only a small percentage of the overall running time) does little to detract from Murderball's most important observations.

"Murderball" is slang for quad rugby, a full-contact sport for wheelchair-bound quadriplegics. It's a violent, no-holds-barred activity that flies in the face of conventional etiquette that those confined to wheelchairs should be treated with kid gloves. When teams meet in their gladiatorial chariots, girded for battle, we see them in a different light. It's not exactly a battle to the death, but, as one player puts it when referring to the 2004 Paralympics: "We're not going for a hug - we're going for a fucking gold medal." However, these players have already won the biggest battle of their lives - the mental war in the months and years after the instance of their disability, when the mind becomes a bigger obstacle than the damaged body.

Murderball follows several individuals during the two-year period spanning the 2002 World Quad Rugby championship in Sweden and the 2004 Athens Paralympics. Several of the protagonists are members of Team USA, including the ultra-intense Mark Zupan. Paralyzed since the age of 16, after he passed out drunk in the flatbed of a friend's truck and was subsequently ejected when the intoxicated driver executed a sharp turn, Mark is a tenacious competitor who intimidates opponents. The Mad Max reference used in the film is not out of place. Murderball tells Mark's story, introduces us to his girlfriend, and shows steps in the gradual healing of his relationship with best friend Christopher Igoe, the driver of the truck.

Conflict comes via the inclusion of Joe Soares (who looks like a young Robert Duvall), an uncompromising disciplinarian with a son who doesn't share his passion for athletics. A quad rugby hero in the 1990s, Joe's best years in the arena are behind him. After being cut as a player by Team USA, Joe turned his back on his country to became the coach of Team Canada. A single goal has become his driving obsession: to beat his former team. Some view him as a hero - a great warrior who still has something to prove - while others see him as a traitor - the Benedict Arnold of quad rugby. Mark hates Joe; the feeling is mutual. Their antagonism gives Murderball a spark.

Rubin and Shapiro offer glimpses into the lives of several of Mark's teammates, including Andy Cohn, Scott Hogsett, and Bob Lujano - an approach that establishes personalities for recurring faces. The co-directors also follow the story of Keith Cavill, a recently injured quadriplegic who is undergoing rehab at a center in New Jersey. Cavill's inclusion lends the movie a "before and after" flavor. Keith is Mark before he came to grips with the realities of his new existence. Perhaps the most telling moment in the film occurs when Keith comes home only to realize that "normal" as he knew it has become a phantom.

Candid conversations give us insights into how quads go about their everyday life - cooking, cleaning, eating, etc. We learn graphic details about "quad sex." (Don't say you aren't curious…) We see how difficult it can be to put on a pair of shorts or take off shoes. And we learn that being a quadriplegic means having an impediment in all four limbs; it does not mean total body paralysis beneath the neck. (The severity of the impediments is dependent upon how high in the neck the vertebrae injury causing the paralysis occurred.)

When it comes to mixing personal stories with sporting events, this is no Hoop Dreams. The filmmaking techniques are primitive and the editing, while workmanlike, it straightforward. The few quad rugby matches that get screen time are covered perfunctorily. There is little or no suspense about the results - probably because the filmmakers are interested primarily in what happens as it impacts the lives of the central characters. Murderball is a catchy title, but before you finish the film, you will become aware that this is about more about the athletes than the game they compete in. The emotional resonance that results from the focus on several unique individuals is what makes this a worthwhile viewing experience.

Murderball (United States, 2005)

Director: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
Cast: Mark Zupan, Joe Soares, Keith Cavill
Cinematography: Henry Alex Rubin
Music: Jamie Saft
U.S. Distributor: ThinkFilm
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2005-07-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1