It’s hard to imagine a movie with thicker Teflon coating than an inspirational sports doc in which the up-from-behind athletes involved are also wheelchair-bound quadriplegics struck down in their prime. The opportunities for mawkish uplift abound, and heaven help anyone callous enough to call it exploitation. For the most part, though, Murderball—about the unheralded international pro-am sport of quad rugby, formerly known as murderball—lets naysayers off the hook. While the film does
exhibit a shameless penchant for overdetermined conflict/resolution setups (it’s a sports movie, for God’s sake), it also allows the unresolvable ache and unexpected resiliency of its subjects to come through loud and clear. Indeed, what keeps Murderball from devolving into redemptive drivel is its insistence on treating the players it profiles as jocks first and disabled men second.
Documentarians Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro (who penned a Maxim story that spurred this film) are gifted enough filmmakers to maintain that balance throughout. Structured around a series of hyperbolic rivalries and personal revelations, it begins with a useful description of the ferocious sport itself—think a gladiatorial hybrid of touch football and bumper cars—filmed in knuckle-whitening wheelchair p.o.v. shots. We then meet the pertinent players and see cocky, undefeated team USA lose the 2002 world championship to its Canadian counterpart.
On one side of this bitter divide is Joe Soares, a megalomaniacal middle-aged Yank who took over coaching duties for the Canadians after being cut from the American team; among his former teammates is Mark Zupan, a young Texan whose hard-earned introspection and air of quiet grief provide the film with its moral center—and Soares with an archrival (for Rubin and Shapiro’s purposes, anyway).
Between adrenaline-stoked passages of court combat,
Murderball profiles the individual setbacks of Soares, Zupan, and several of their teammates and fellow quads. Some of these threads are wrenching: The film opens with a raw lesson in what it takes for Zupan to dress himself every morning and later follows the newly crippled Keith Cavill from a grueling stay in rehab to an ADA-remodeled bedroom in his parents’ home, where he fruitlessly implores family members to acknowledge his loss. It’s the movie’s most potent heart punch.
A stagy confrontation between Zupan and his high school pal Chris Igoe, the ostensible culprit in the car crash that left Zupan paralyzed, falls flat. Not only does Igoe exhibit little guilt, Zupan seems to have stopped blaming him long ago. Soares’s mid-film heart attack and its impact on his relationship with his son, Robert, is also overplayed, although it is a relief when the two finally connect—or at least when Soares finally stops haranguing the bookish lad.
What truly makes Murderball resonate, though, is that it poses the unstated question at the heart of all athletic endeavors (but precious few tear-jerking Hollywood gimp-fests)—How much punishment can the human body take before the spirit crumbles?—and lets the game and its not-quite-broken players supply the answer.