MURDERBALL (Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005)
Upon learning that MURDERBALL is about quadriplegics who play wheelchair rugby, the first question that comes to mind is “How?” Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s lively documentary clears up the common misconception that quadriplegics don’t have use of their arms and then proceeds to show these athletes ramming themselves into one another in pursuit of victory on the court.
The filmmakers train their cameras on the charismatic individuals of the 2002 U.S. quad rugby team competing in the World Championships and 2004 Paralympic squad. MURDERBALL pays special attention to Mark Zupan, a muscular, tattooed star of the sport, and Joe Soares, a legend for his aggressiveness and nail-hard attitude but also an aging player who’s losing his edge. When Soares is dropped from the team, he takes a job as the captain for archrival Canada, placing the man in direct, heated competition with his former teammates.
MURDERBALL is a thorough examination of how quadriplegics go about their day-to-day lives. Most of it is shot from the perspective of being in a wheelchair, and the co-directors incorporate similar camera moves, such as court-long push-ins that introduce the various quad rugby teams. Rubin and Shapiro’s interviews range from Keith Cavill, a recently injured motocross racer coming to terms with his condition, to Soares, who has been a quadriplegic since childhood. (The degree of the players’ impairment also varies greatly. Players are ranked on a point system from .5, the most impaired, to 3.5, the least impaired. The four-man team on the court must not exceed eight points.)
MURDERBALL drives home how quad rugby gives hope to the participants, many who led active, athletic existences before their injuries and can’t envision a lifetime of sitting still. When Keith tests a wheelchair specially made for quad rugby—much to the concern of those who see him as fragile—he lights up. It’s no wonder. For someone who has spent a lifetime racing bikes—and lost his full mobility from an accident on one—the chance to continue his passion in some form may make a big difference in his recovery.
While it’s an effective sports film—there’s great potential for a terrific narrative feature based on this material—the players and their enormous spirits take precedence over the outcome of the games. MURDERBALL isn’t soaked in cheap sentiment and doesn’t soften the hard edges of the more irascible people profiled. They don’t perceive themselves as victims, and many probably don’t view themselves as role models. Still, one can’t help but be inspired by how these guys have adjusted to their circumstances and live to the fullest.
Like the players, MURDERBALL is funny and brash. It’s a deeply felt film with outsized personalities. Zupan and Soares are a combustible duo and MURDERBALL’S ostensible stars. Their hostility toward one another gives the film a terrific rivalry, but just as powerful as their enmity are the stories of their lives off the court. Zupan reunites with the friend who has never forgiven himself for getting behind the wheel in the accident that led to his injuries. Soares grapples with the fallout of his fierce competitiveness and how to accept his sports-averse son. Uplifting, informative, and energetic, MURDERBALL shreds preconceptions and entertains like few films can.
(This review originally appeared in different forms in my coverage of the 2005 Cleveland International Film Festival for The Film Journal and in the program for the Deep Focus Film Festival.)