Murderball (2005)


(director: Henry Alex Rubin & Dana Adam Shapiro/based on an article in Maxim by Mr. Shapiro; cinematographer: Henry Alex Rubin; editors: Conor O’Neill/Geoffrey Richman; music: Jamie Saft; cast: Mark Zupan, Joe Soares, Keith Cavill, Andy Cohn, Scott Hogsett, Bob Lujano; Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jeff Mandel/Dana Adam Shapiro; THINKFilm; 2005)

“Honest and refreshing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Admirable documentary about a game invented in Canada in the 1970’s called “wheelchair rugby,” or as it’s more commonly called quad rugby. It used to be called “murderball” before it changed its politically incorrect name in order to get corporate sponsors. It’s a full-contact sport played by quadriplegics in specially designed wheelchairs. The game has become an official event at the Paralympics, a worldwide competition for handicapped athletes. The film picks up at the 2002 world championship in Sweden and wends its way to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Much is made of the arrogant Americans winning eleven straight of these events but losing in Gothenburg Sweden to the Canadians. The United States and Canada have become bitter rivals in the event ever since their former star athlete Joe Soares was denied a place on the team (which he believes was unfair) and took the job coaching Team Canada, and is now considered by many Team USA players, including its star player Mark Zupan, as Benedict Arnold. Joe was disabled by a childhood case of polio; a drunk Zupan was thrown from the truck bed into a canal when his high school best friend was driving drunk and crashed into a tree. Most of the participants were in car accidents and suffered neck injuries.

The charged athletes chant in unison USA and one individual says he’s not a participant in the Special Olympics “We’re not going for a hug–we’re going for a fucking gold medal.” These are guys who don’t mind cursing and don’t want your pity; they’re gladiators who have overcome tough obstacles and worked hard to be champs. It usually takes two to three years of demanding rehab and training to master the sport, which is played on a regulation-size basketball court and is about stopping the other guy by slamming into his wheelchair so he doesn’t score a point by carrying the ball over a line at the rival’s end-zone. The more mobile guys handle the ball, while the others play defense. It’s played without helmets or pads, even though players are routinely lifted out of their chairs and onto the floor.

Former Spin editor Dana Adam Shapiro and documentarian Henry Alex Rubin do a fine job telling about this novelty sport and also intercutting a human interest story (with nothing sappy), where we learn something about the private lives of the game’s personalities–including how they became injured. The film is based on an article in Maxim by Mr. Shapiro. It includes telling how the quadriplegics master post-rehabilitation sex techniques and some frank sex discussions among themselves, the support they get at home, and it points out that they’re not totally immobilized– some can drive, do their own cooking and many other normal activities.

The hard-nosed, highly competitive and intense family man, coach Joe Soares, and the aggressive, shaved head and sporting a mean looking goatee, heavily tattooed American star player Mark Zupan, who has a girlfriend, become the main focus for the film. They certainly convinced me they were jocks, and the way they were portrayed in such a down-to-earth manner seemed honest and refreshing. An upbeat film that covers some of the usual in sports related films but doesn’t make the “big game” anything more than what such events mean to most Americans raised with a “born to win” competitive attitude. By the film’s conclusion we have dug past the disabilities, the jock feats and the macho styling, and in a most satisfying way we know more about what makes them tick as human beings without ever patronizing them.