It is relatively easy to make a film about people in wheelchairs and manipulate the viewer into feeling sorry for these poor, disabled souls.
But that is the last thing the quadriplegics who play a violent, high-contact version of Rugby, nicknamed Murderball, would want. And it is hardly the movie that co-directors Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin have made. Leave behind any misconceptions of these guys as frail wimps, for they will certainly be erased by this remarkable documentary about the members of the United States Quad rugby team. Their bodies may be damaged, but their chosen form of Rehabilitation is an indoor sport that is part football, part bumper cars.
The game itself is sadistic in the extreme and the filmmakers capture it with all its bone-crunching excitement from a wheelchair-level camera that puts us into the action. But Murderball transcends the sport to become a series of portraits of the players, who bare themselves and their physical and emotional struggles, talk about the process of re-learning the most basic daily activities and, yes, discuss the wonders of quadriplegic sex with refreshing candor.
Still, the filmmakers lucked into a natural dramatic arc, as early on we watch the United States team narrowly beaten by Canada at the 2002 world championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, then train and strain, readying themselves for a climactic rematch at the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, two years later.
The U.S. team is captained by manical-looking, tattooed, goateed Mark Zupan, whose life changed forever after an alcohol-fueled truck crash in South Florida. Perhaps the most dramatic story thread in Murderball is Zupan’s difficult reunion with his childhood friend, Chris Igoe, the unharmed, but guilt-ridden driver that fateful night.
Coaching the Canadian team is Joe Soares of Tampa, who took the job after being cut from the U.S. squad. Desperately competitive, Soares is eager to show up his former teammates, many of whom consider him a traitor to his country. In a subplot that is too good to invent, Soares also has a natural tension with his son, who would rather play the viola than risk injuring himself with sports.
The third “star” of the film is newly injured Keith Cavill, who broke his neck in a rough-terrain motorcycle race. He is shown embarking on the slow, painful rehabilitation process, spurred on by his introduction to quad rugby. You can see his deadened eyes begin to glimmer again as he sees others who have been in his situation take to the court like modern gladiators.
Eager to erase the prevailing ignorance of their condition, the quad rugby players patiently answer questions, acting as show-and-tell exhibits for a classroom of wide-eyed youngsters. Even more moving is an exhibition murderball game played for a group of wounded Iraq War veterans. Looking at the soldiers, it is clear that the number of broken bodies eligible for the Paralympics will not be depleted anytime soon.
Tightly edited with a look that is part ESPN and part MTV, Murderball is a testament to the human spirit, but not one that panders to the tear ducts. It is full of frank talk and the crunch of metal against metal. It puts a new face on quadriplegics, besides Christopher Reeve, turning the spotlight on an entire team of wheelchair supermen.