“Can you believe this? These guys get more tail than I do.”
Once the above thought pops into your head while watching the documentary “Murderball”, pity for the people being profiled goes right out the window. Then again, if you were to tell a guy like Mark Zupan that you pity him, he’s liable to punch you in the crotch, then headbutt you to the ground, before rolling you into the ground with his dented, gladiator-style wheelchair. To paraphrase one of Zupan’s childhood friends, being in a chair didn’t turn Zupan into an asshole, he already was one. The same is true for Zupan’s arch nemesis, the Benedict Arnold-inspired Joe Soares, a former member of the U.S.A. wheelchair rugby team who, after being cut, vows to defeat his former teammates by heading up north to coach Team Canada . To be sure of Joe’s inherent asshole tendencies, you only need ask his non-jock son Robert, the target of Joe’s constant disciplining.
Although the film opens with, and follows the regiments of Team U.S.A. ‘s Wheelchair Rugby squad as they train to smash mouth once again with Team Canada and Joe Soares, “Murderball” would rather introduce you to the world of quadriplegics. And what a fascinating and revealing world it is. It goes without saying that 99.99% of the world’s population has never spent a second of one day considering what it’s like to be a quadriplegic, to live like one, much less to make love like one. “Murderball” goes there, and then some.
Originally created in Canada and called Murderball for the viciousness with which the sport has become known, Wheelchair Rubgy, or Quad Ruby, is very much like normal rugby — rough and tumble, played by equally rough and tumble people. To play it means to want to rip your opponent’s heart out (if not literally, then emotionally), or to scream like a maniac at the top of your lungs to psych yourself up. If anything, having to move around in a heavy, metallic wheelchair as you literally crash into your opponent (often ending with someone’s wheelchair toppling over, spilling the occupant) is more dangerous than able bodied rugby. Imagine sitting in your chair when someone comes out of nowhere to broadside you, and that’s not even close to the ferocity of real Quad Rugby.
It’s inevitable that you will feel bad for the quadriplegics in the documentary from time to time, but that notion is oftentimes quickly tempered by the fact that these guys are doing more than I do each day sitting here reviewing bad movies. They’re winning medals, braving the fire of competition, and their life has more meaning than most able bodied people’s. When was the last time your neighbor trained year round to win a gold medal? Exactly. Their world may not be easy, and everyday chores may seem like Herculean tasks, but at the end of the day they, as Zupan puts it, these guys probably do more in a chair than they ever would have on their feet.
The star of “Murderball” is, without a doubt, the tattooed and goateed Mark Zupan, who fell asleep in a truck being driven by his drunken best friend Christopher Igoe when they got into an accident. Years later, the two friends still haven’t reconciled, that terrible day still haunting Igoe, while Zupan has gone on with life. He has a girlfriend (a hippie mortician!) who never envisioned herself dating a jock, much less a quadriplegic jock. And true to his personality, Zupan is probably the sport’s best spokesman. Rugby wishes it had someone as charismatic as this guy promoting it.
The other half of “Murderball” is spent with Joe Soares, who coaches Team Canada more out of a need to crush his former allies (and in the process prove them wrong for cutting him) than for any other reason. Joe’s preoccupation with winning and sports is most apparent in his treatment of son Robert, who shows no skill in sports, much to the father’s chagrin, even though Joe professes otherwise. It’s only after a scare with a heart attack that Joe comes to realize what’s important, thankfully for young Robert. Mind you, not that almost dying has done anything to smother Joe’s intense need to defeat Team U.S.A. As the two teams prepare for the 2004 Paralympics in Athens , a confrontation of epic proportions is inevitable.
At just 80 minutes of running time, “Murderball” is too short. There are people that are profiled in the film that I wanted to know more about, such as young Keith Cavill, who is at the beginning of where Zupan and teammate Scott Hogsett used to be before finding a second life in their gladiator wheelchairs. Keith appears early in the film, but disappears for a long period, before resurfacing near the end during one of Zupan’s trips to a hospital to promote Quad Rubgy. The last we hear of Keith, he’s saving up the $3,000 needed to buy his first rugby wheelchair.
Of course this isn’t a scripted movie, and there can be no happy or tidy endings as the credits start to roll. If you’ve been paying attention to “Murderball”, you would have known that by now.
Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro (director)
CAST: Keith Cavill, Andy Cohn, Scott Hogsett, Christopher Igoe, Bob Lujano, Joe Soares, Mark Zupan