Pop a Wheelie
Murderball sets you straight about one thing right off the bat: “Quadriplegic” does not mean “totally paralyzed” — it just means dude has some impairment in all four limbs. Murderball sets you straight about a second thing next: Patronize these guys at your own peril. They play a sport called “murderball,” after all, and it’s only a slight exaggeration to describe the game’s main rule as, “It’s basically kill the man with the ball,” as one enthusiastic player gleefully exclaims.
It’s not officially called “murderball,” of course, and that nom de jeu has tended to get played down as the ruling body of quad rugby — its official name — has started to go after corporate sponsorship, it’s noted here. A similar push-and-pull conflict — between wild, raging passion and playing nice so as not to upset the neighbors — characterizes filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s documentary exploration of the sport, which will likely serve as an introduction to most viewers. Who knew “quadriplegic” didn’t mean “totally paralyzed”? Who knew there were guys crazy enough to go careening around a basketball court in battering-ram wheelchairs playing a game that looks like a bloodsport straight outta Mad Max?
Rubin and Shapiro embrace the raging passion of the personalities they meet as they follow Team USA — undefeated for a decade and bursting with as much macho arrogance that kind of record would lead you to expect — from the Wheelchair Rugby World Championship in Stockholm in 2003 to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Murderball is not, even in its energetic first half, a wildly unconventional film, but the directors let the particularly guy-ish verve of the players infect the film in a way that makes you think the entire endeavor is going to be as defiantly its own self. They waste no time at all getting to the preeminent question hovering in the minds of the audience: What about, er, that fifth limb? “The first thing I learned how to do,” after the accident that put him in a wheelchair, one played reports, “was jerk off.” It’s the one thing the girls they meet all want to have answered quickly, too — girls like athletes, as long as, um, everything’s functional, and for quads with enough mobility to play murderball, oh yeah, it’s all still working just fine.
As they bop from explaining the complicated system that determines how many players in quad rugby can be on the court at the same time — it involves points per player based upon how much mobility each has — to introducing us to the array of almost viciously assertive and overwhelmingly competitive guys who play this sport, there’s a sense that Rubin and Shapiro are careening around like the players on the court. And that’s a good thing — like their subjects, they aren’t merely aping the big boys’ game, they’re taking it and making it their own. Or so it seems. But Murderball eventually settles into a sentimental groove, and it becomes clear that Rubin and Shapiro have merely been setting up what is to be a strikingly less original film than it appeared at first. They pick up the threads of the stories of players like Mark Zupan — he’s the scary-looking goateed guy on the movie’s posters — who’s estranged from the high-school friend responsible for his disability (it’s a sad, stupid, familiar tale of getting drunk and getting behind the wheel) and who, his old friends insist, was an asshole before he was in the chair… and Rubin and Shapiro run with it to its audience-pleasing ending. They pick up the thread of Joe Soares, one of the game’s veterans, who was cut from Team USA when he got too old to play and “defected” to Canada to coach its national team, who has a contentious relationship with his bookish, nonathletic young son, who’s pushing himself into a stress danger zone getting prepared to go face to face with his old American teammates in Athens… and Rubin and Shapiro run with it to its audience-pleasing ending. They pick up the thread of Keith, a new quadriplegic we first meet only four months after his motorcycle accident, just when he’s beginning to despair of his life ever being interesting and fun again… and Rubin and Shapiro run with it to its audience-pleasing ending.
There’s nothing exactly wrong with pleasing the audience, with weaving a traditional narrative ,with asking viewers to shed a tear or two over the triumphs and defeats of Our Heroes. But Zupan and Soares and all the rest are such extraordinary people, seized with a determination beyond that which most people would recognize — not a result of their disabilities but a function of their personalities that likely would have propelled them to do great things even if they were able-bodied — that it’s hard to imagine them being able to embrace their own stories told in such an ordinary manner.