"I'm a guy in a chair. I'm just like you, except I'm sitting down." That was said by one of the athletes in Murderball, a riveting and eye-opening sports film/documentary on the game of quadriplegic rugby. After the film documents the 2002 World Championships in Sweden, it settles to project, rather vividly I might add, the lives of these competitors for the subsequent two years leading up the 2004 Paralympics in Greece. The overall focus might be on the American and the Canadian national teams but the film generates its true heart and intensity from two individuals: Mark Zupan and Joe Soares. Zupan (Mark prefers to go by his last name), who actually looks an "X-Sport" participant, hails from Austin and is the best player on the U.S. team due to his ferociousness. He deeply dislikes Joe along with the rest of his teammates. The reason being that the sullen and combative Joe, who was once an all-star on the American team but was eventually cut due to his age, defected to Canada to become the head coach of their team in order to get revenge.
Contrary to popular belief, quadriplegics are able to retain some movement in all of their four limbs (Christopher Reeves case was an extreme one). Murderball not only establishes that, but it also shatters any other misconceptions and stereotypes that people might have in an intelligent yet highly entertaining manner. The sport of "murderball" was created during the late-70s in Canada, but the name was eventually changed to appease the nervous sponsors. However, the rules remain just as shocking. Every athletes level of disability is rated on a scale of 0.5 to 3.5 points with one team only allowed to put out a total of 8 points on the court at once. The more mobile try to advance the ball while others stay back and knock over anyone trying to do so. Most of the participants have broken their necks at least once while playing (as a cute graphic shows us) so their level has only gone up, much to their pleasure. The wheelchairs used on the court are quite unique themselves -- theyre made to look like something the invading Vikings mightve used during the 10th century, but when the hits start coming hard and fast, they certainly get a good workout.
Just like not every able-bodied person can play "regular" rugby, not every quadriplegic can participate in quad rugby on the highest level. These are the toughest among the tough. So perhaps it shouldnt be surprising that many of them were jocks, and in may ways, still are. Zupan, with his no-holds-barred attitude, is the most quintessential of them all. He was injured when a friend drove away and got in an accident after a heavy night of drinking not realizing that he was sleeping in the back of the pick-up truck. The film tries to play up the "tension" between the two, especially around their high school reunion, which doesnt quite work because we get the sense that theyve moved on long before the film started. Zupan has said that in many ways this is the best thing that has ever happened to him. Unbelievable, right? Youll have a much better idea where hes coming from after you watch the film. On the other hand, Joe is also having some personal problems. As a son of a poor Portuguese immigrant, "hes learned the hard way," as he says, so he tries to instill the same kind of discipline in his unforbearing son, whos a viola player! In a somewhat unfortunate manner, Murderball gets a break when Joe is forced to reevaluate his life which ultimately brings him much closer to his son.
Directed by relative new comers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, Murderball is approached with MTV-style rapid-fire pace and editing techniques (not surprisingly, MTV Films are part distributors). And while the "narrative" is rather conventional with all the necessary markers along the way, the film delivers it in such a manner that it invigorates your heart and soul. In a brilliant move, Rubin and Shapiro also follow a non-player (at least during the film shoot) named Keith Cavill, who was involved in crippling motorcross accident, and once his rehab is over, hes forced to deal with the realities including the behavior of others towards him which the film catches in a heart-wrenching moment. Murderball also doesnt feature any talking-heads telling you in a roundabout way that these people can @#%$. They can and they're happy to tell you about it; some even say that now they have a better chance than ever ("wheelchair is like a chick-magnet," we hear). While the film doesnt go deep into the long term medical effects or how the insurance comes into play in all this, it not only shows you, but makes you believe that these men in chairs are just like us, except theyre sitting down.