On the playing field, they charge with the fearlessness of gladiators, knocking each other to the ground again and again in a furious bid for team glory. Off the field, they cuss and carouse; they drink and talk trash and love the ladies. And everywhere, they zip around in wheelchairs, hard-headed gents transformed by simple twists of fate, and sometimes neck, into the misunderstood diagnostic category of quadriplegics. (The term defines limited function in all four limbs, not necessarily total paralysis from the neck down.)
The men of the rousing documentary Murderball — so titled for the slangier, less dainty name of their chosen, brutal contact sport, quad rugby — are a breed apart: For one thing, they’re unusually articulate about their experiences and feelings. And for another, when not in armored chairs souped up for battle, competing at the quad rugby World Championship (we see them in Sweden in 2002) or the Paralympics (we see them in Greece in 2004), their daily challenges include putting on their shoes. But it’s the ways in which the players who make the cut for directors Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro are like any other SOBs, on wheels or not, that kicks Murderball up to trophy level. Also, the filmmaking is as strong as the subject matter, with an elegant structure. And that’s something that can’t be said of every entry in this nonfiction boom, when real-life plots involving birds who mate or children who ballroom dance make for mad hot box office.
And then there are the riveting stories these attractive mooks have to tell — it’s a tournament of tales, really, played out by competitive sumbitches between bursts of on-court action shot and edited with a love of speed and chair-slamming impact. For the main competitive event, there’s the bad blood between Mark Zupan (charismatic tattooed jock, spokesman for dominant Team USA, in a chair since a freak auto accident at the age of 18) and Joe Soares (vein-throbbing type A former American all-star, cut from Team USA and coaching Team Canada with revenge in mind, in a chair as a result of childhood polio). For psychological tension, there’s barking Coach Joe’s gruff relationship with his bookish 12-year-old son and Zupan’s ties to the guilt-ridden best friend who was driving on the night of that accident. For a chance to hear straight dope about the can-he-or-can’t-he questions on every viewer’s mind, there is Zupan’s happy relationship with his punk-sexy girlfriend. (In fact, every guy in front of the filmmakers’ camera is cheerily forthcoming about his sex life, sometimes with raunchy high spirits; then again, maybe that was a condition of getting the face time.)
But let’s set application of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to questions of nonfiction filmmaking aside (Does the act of observing alter the reality being observed? As a man agreeable to the notion of strangers documenting his wedding anniversary and his heart attack, is Coach Joe representative of other quads?) The directors haven’t only been lucky in finding these particular quads on this particular quest for Paralympic gold; they’ve been artful. By introducing the more recently paralyzed Keith Cavill, a passionate lover of all things wheelie still dazed from the motocross accident that irrevocably changed his life, the directors open up the movie so that it’s not only a jaunty sports story of rivalries and triumph of spirit over damaged bodies but also a raw tale of medical and psychological struggle. The camera is with Cavill as he is discharged from 10 months of physical rehab, and as he returns home with his mother and girlfriend, in fresh despair and anger at what will never be the same again. It’s with him, too, as he lays eyes on a quad rugby wheelchair for the first time, demonstrated by none other than Zupan, and feels excitement and hope, maybe for the first time since his crash.
Murderball is about characters, it’s about character, and toward the very end, amid all the hoopla and rah-rah of the big-game payoff and the assembly of all the people we have come to care about both in chairs and out, the filmmakers nudge their movie to be about something even more stunning and sobering than that. Just briefly, but with acute intention, Rubin and Shapiro show the pin-up boys of quad rugby visiting American soldiers, wounded in Iraq, at Fort Belvoir in Alexandria, Va. The implication is clear: For every one of the scared, broken boys we see, comforted by Zupan’s confidence and affability, there are way too many others off screen who now qualify for the team.