Do not for one second feel sorry for the subjects of Murderball. They might very well beat the living crap out of you if you do.
It’s hard to remember a documentary in which it was such a benefit that the characters were not entirely likeable, but that’s absolutely the case in this dynamic award-winning entry from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro could easily have gone for an easy “cripples are people too” sensibility and still had people lapping up the resulting film as one of those feel-good, triumph-of-the-human-spirit tales that audiences and critics can congratulate themselves about embracing.
But they don’t, and that’s what makes Murderball so fantastic. On the surface, they seem to have idiot-proof subject matter: exploring the world of the men who play “quad rugby.” The sport, created in Canada, was originally called “murderballâ€'and it’s instantly easy to understand why. Wheelchair-using quadriplegics'the term is clarified as meaning diminished function in all four limbs, not necessarily complete paralysis'launch themselves into one another in modified, armored-up rigs, toppling opponents at regular intervals. Soccer players who collapse to the ground grimacing in agony after every tackle should hide themselves in a darkened room for weeks after watching this movie.
The filmmakers also stumble on to a conflict ready-made for drama. Joe Soares, a 40-something survivor of childhood polio, was once the star player of the dominant American team. But after slowing down in middle-age'and watching rising stars like Mark Zupan come to prominence'Soares was cut from the American team before the 2000 Paralympic Games. Apparently out of sheer spite, he decided to coach the rival Canadian squad. Soares is pissed at the team that let him go, and the Americans are pissed at the guy they see as a bitter turncoat. And just for good measure, the filmmakers find Keith, a motocross rider just months removed from the accident that paralyzed him.
With nothing but those elements in place, Murderball still might have been a solid film. What makes it exceptional is the way Rubin and Shapiro anchor the story in the kind of people their primary characters are. And that kind of person could best be described as “obnoxious jock.” Soares visibly cringes at the fact that his bookish son plays viola and isn’t interested in sports; his idea of a romantic sentiment and an anniversary dinner with his wife is to toast the future success of the Canadian team in the upcoming 2004 Athens Olympics. Meanwhile, Zupan and his American teammates play pranks on unsuspecting team staffers. Zupan and Soares trash-talk to each other throughout a match between the American and Canadian teams. Choirboys they ain’t.
Murderball at times follows fairly predictable sports-movie patterns, but a climactic showdown in Athens between the Americans and Canadians is a masterpiece of unexpected filmmaking. The sequence unfolds without watch-the-clock tension, emphasizing the pure passion of the play. And just when it feels like the movie is on the verge of making it all about how great it is that they can play at all, Rubin and Shapiro show the anguish of losing players who aren’t about to believe any garbage about moral victories. “I didn’t come here for a hug,” says a disgusted player when describing how someone made the mistake of thinking he was participating in the “Special Olympics;” “I came here to win a f'king Gold Medal.
And that’s what you’d expect from these guys, because participating in this sport is about not allowing themselves to be defined by what they can’t do. Murderball spends a lot of time on the ways these active, vital men deal with the ways their lives have changed forever, from the inability to participate in the activities that define them to concerns about being able to perform sexually. But as one childhood friend of Zupan says, “He was an a'hole before he got hurt, so any attempt to blame his behavior on the accident is a hoax.” Murderball takes innately fascinating material and does just a little bit more with it, making it a portrait of athletes who don’t want a little thing like a wheelchair to deny them the luxury of being a'holes.
Scott Renshaw reviews new movies on Fox 13’s Good Day Utah Thursdays in the 7 a.m. hour.