First things first: these quadriplegics could kick your ass. Mine too.
It’s a misconception that quads don’t have the use of any of their limbs; they do, but with limited functionality. The quadriplegics in the outstanding documentary Murderball, co-directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, are eager to make this point. The whole idea behind playing wheelchair rugby is that men in wheelchairs aren’t delicate, fragile, or really all that different from the way they used to be. There’s also a world of difference between the Paralympic Games and the Special Olympics. The latter is a free-for-all where everybody gets a badge and a check-plus for showing up, and while the men of Team USA Quad Rugby are quick to acknowledge the good done by the Special Olympics, their sport is played at a higher level: “We’re going to win a fucking gold medal.”
The quads are assigned point values based on which upper vertebrae they snapped in order to get in the chair to begin with, which in turn determines their functionality: finger control, motor skills, etc. Only combinations of players totaling fewer than eight points per team can be on the court at one time. Playing on a regulation basketball court, the ball is inbounded, and the object is to cross the goal at the end of the court with two wheels while maintaining possession. You have to dribble or pass every few seconds, but other than that, it’s the kind of handicapped carnage not seen outside “South Park.” The players’ chairs are Mad Maxed out for stability and strength, since no one wears helmets or any kind of gear; like I said, these guys could kick your ass. Murderball isn’t just a cute title, either; that’s the sport’s original name, given by its Canadian creators, but “wheelchair rugby” plays better to sponsors. Go figure.
Murderball won the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, and with good reason. Rubin and Shapiro have created one hell of a good ride and easily the best sports movie in recent memory (except, of course, for Mighty Ducks 4: Emilio’s Revenge). The fact that it’s a documentary is going to scare some people off, and that’s a shame; it’s got the pacing, structure and immediacy of a feature, and was 10 times more enjoyable than another movie I saw the same day, War of the Worlds.
The first scene sets an amazing tone: Marc Zupan, key player for Team USA and resident tattooed badass, gets dressed in silence in his room. With increasing meticulousness, he slings himself into his chair, changes shorts, and rolls out the door. It’s a shocking contrast to the brutal nature of the sport he’s thrown himself into since his accident, and the perfect way to humanize him; in a feature he’d be a caricature, but here he’s a real man, as are all the other players. Later there’s a great sequence where they discuss how being in the chair can affect their sex lives, complete with scenes from an instructional video for chair-bound lovin’. One of the players sums up the importance of sex after his accident: “I’d rather be able to grab my meat than grab a toothbrush.” Poetic and true.
The film is built around the rivalry between Team USA and Team Canada; Joe, the Canadian coach, used to be an all-star for the US until his age kept him from the team, so he turned his back and headed north to the most boring country on the planet, taking with him the US playbook. These two teams face each other several times throughout the film, to determine the seeds and again at the 2002 Paralympics in Athens. As the rivalry plays out, we learn about the key players for Team USA, what happened to put them in the chairs, and we also follow a man named Keith who’s going through rehab and learning to live in the chair after a motorcycle accident.
Joe’s a consummate douchebag: he doesn’t seem to care too much for his 6th-grade son, who plays the viola and doesn’t like sports (I think we all see where that one’s going, but that’s a whole other documentary). When Joe and his wife go out to dinner for their anniversary and she toasts, “To you,” he raises his glass and responds, “To Team Canada, and the gold, hopefully. The golden rainbow.” Bits like that “golden rainbow” thing fly out of Joe’s mouth like, well, the rants of a guy in a wheelchair. He’s an egomaniacal blowhard who left his country just because the team wouldn’t take him; natural villains like this are rare, and it takes a stress-induced heart attack to soften him up.
Keith, on the other hand, is just getting used to life at “ass-level,” and his frustration with learning to live all over again stand out sharply against the swift moves of the players, showing just how far they’ve come since their respective accidents to regain some kind of control over their lives. He noticeably perks up when Zupan visits his rehab center late in the film to demonstrate to other quads that life doesn’t end with the accident. Zupan also spends the film rebuilding a bond with his old best friend, the man who caused the accident that led to his disability. Zupan invites him to see the team play in Athens, and the trials the team faces there are worth it for the ways they change. I won’t, of course, go into specifics about the final score, except to say that it doesn’t matter. Murderball is an exploration of these men’s lives, and bigger than any one game.
The film ends with Team USA visiting Iraq War vets who’ve just gotten their chairs and playing some rugby scrimmages with them. One kid couldn’t be more than 22 or 23 and looks plenty intimidated at the idea of playing. He says he’s not sure if, with his newly impaired hands, he can throw the ball far enough to inbound it. One of the players tells him brusquely but not unkindly that he’ll be fine. He inbounds it, and just like that, the game is on.
In short, Murderball does what movies should do: it involves us in a story with interesting characters we care about and the complex issues they face. Their lives aren’t picnics, but they’re survivable; with time, most things are.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Growing Bald.
Murderball / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()