A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, R, 85 mins.
Featuring Mark Zupan, Joe Soares, Keith Cavill, Andy Cohn, Scott
Hogsett and Bob Lujano.
I don’t think that I would be alone by saying that I have a somewhat difficult time when I am around someone with a mental or physical handicap. Now, I am not saying that to be pejorative about someone that faces some lifelong disability, nor am I failing to see these people as the human beings that they are. No, my main problem is what we all face at one point or another – how do we relate to them and show them that we care without looking like we are desperately trying to sympathize and offer charity?
Through the course of my life in the various jobs that I have had I often felt that I just did not know what to precisely say or do when I encounter…say…a quadriplegic. If they look like they need help with something should I be instantly forthcoming because, clearly, they look like they need my assistance? Or should I do or say nothing for fear that, if I did, they would take that as an offence to their ability to deal with everyday life concerns?
After watching the absorbing and powerful new documentary MURDERBALL, I fear that if I ask the wrong question to a particular quadriplegic, I may not only get a stern response, but I just could get a shot in the mouth. MURDERBALL, among other things, is a film about athletes with disabilities, but make no mistake about it, these athletes are not your proverbial “wimps” that partake in lesser versions of real sports. No sir, these guys, who are all wheelchair bound, are consummate athletes that are carved out of raw nerve, incredible vitality, and daring determination.
This is not some overly sentimental and tear-inducing portrayal of people that have suffered the harshest form of reality and now struggle to live their lives to their fullest with their exceptionalities. MURDERBALL, at the risk of sounding too PC with my vernacular, is not about “special people” that instantly demands our respect of them. This is about potty mouthed competitors that like to hurl vulgar insults at their opponents, chastise their kids, drink beer, party, and get laid. As one of the athletes puts it, rather succinctly late in the film, “I don’t participate in the Special Olympics…I don’t win at what I do to get a hug at the end for effort, I do what I do for a f - - king medal!”
Because of this, MURDERBALL may be one of those rare sports pictures about athletes that has the unique power to simultaneously enlighten and shock. These guys are cogent, frank, and remarkably candid and colourful about the particulars of their disabilities and often relate how really, really pissed off they become when a “normal” person does, in fact, try to offer them assistance when they feel they don’t need it. One quadriplegic athlete discusses an incident at a local bar where he reveals how one lady said how “great it is” that he “came out”. In his mind he feels, in return, that this girl gets it all wrong. What is he supposed to do…live at home behind a locked door and never get any sunlight?
MURDERBALL is a small little masterpiece of human observation. Yes, it is about one particular extreme sport that, to my very ignorance, I did not really know existed – the Canadian created quad rugby (aka MURDERBALL) – but it sort of transcends itself above the stature of yet another dry investigation into sports and instead focuses squarely on the personas behind the game. Directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro observe the little details that many other filmmakers may have ignored, perhaps due to ignorance, or perhaps due to their own inherent uncomfortably with the subject matter.
MURDERBALL is a gutsy film in the sense that it does not go out of its way to make us even really like many of these athletes. Some, as the documentary displays, are capable of being such unruly SOB’s that you really feel like slapping them, regardless of the fact that they can’t walk. Yet, the film does command our utmost respect in these men. Okay, they are obvious warriors on the court, but beyond that they have all waged a bigger, more devastating war – a mental one with themselves where they have had to live with their own inherent disabilities for months, oftentimes years. The fact that these guys have rebounded with such authority, confidence, and self-assurance and then play in a sport that is definitely not for the meager is a true testament to their character.
So, what exactly is murderball? Well, it is not one of those quasi-sports that seems to have been dreamt up for quadriplegics so that they do not injure themselves any further. Nope, wheelchair rugby is the real deal and can be quite violent and tough. This is a contact sport where it is not out of the question to ram another player’s wheelchair so hard that they topple over, often on their heads. Their chairs themselves are reinforced with sheets of metal and pipe and look kind of like a mini-stockcar mixed with some sort of futuristic vehicle from a MAD MAX film. Hitting a player is not only allowed, but a necessary element of the game in terms of defense, much like in hockey.
Actually, wheelchair rugby is much like that great Canadian pastime – each team must carry the ball in hand (or lap) across the opposing team’s goal line to secure a goal or point. The team with the most points after four periods wins. It is clear, through watching some footage of the games, that this sport is bumpy, chaotic, and a bit dangerous. Although no one is ever shown being seriously injured in any of the games, bumps, gashes, and a lot of bruises seem to be the after-effects.
The players themselves are equally rugged and tough. Take Mark Zupan, for example, who is arguably the best player in the world right now. Try disrespecting this dude to his face! Of course, he his in a wheelchair, but his upper body is built like a wrestler’s, his various limbs are adorned with tattoos and he sports a goatee that makes him look like some sort of biker gang member. He takes his sport with a stern and serious attitude, and who could blame him? The sport itself has obviously given him a real purpose and drive in life and has made others take notice of people with physical handicaps - they can achieve greatness. His story is a tragic one, but you never see him flinch or breakdown when reliving it. He was paralyzed when he was just 18 when he fell asleep in the back of a pickup truck being driven by his drunken friend, Christopher Igoe. After a brutal crash Mark was hurled into a canal and was not found for 13 hours.
Zupan is a quadriplegic, but not by the common held definitions of what many think that term implies. Automatic visions of Christopher Reeve are conjured up when that word is brought up, but as this film wisely points out, some quadriplegics do have some motor skills in their arms and upper body, but they still have decreased deficiency. In actuality, their level of disability is graded in a scale for the sport – from .5 to 3.5 - and a team can only have a total of 8 points on the court at the same time. This means that often a team will have a real muscle bound grinder like Zupan on the court with another teammate that, for example, might not have any hands or legs. One of the athletes has enormous dexterity despite missing his hands and most of his forearms. He can still sign autographs and, in a cute moment, demonstrates how he can eat a slice of pizza when a small child asks him. After the demonstration, the kid smiles and seems astonished, like she has just met her favourite super hero.
The documentary essentially follows Zupan and his teammates of the US national team during a couple of seasons. The film shows a bit of the matches, which are quite amazing, but the true heart of the film lies in its backstage politics and drama. We also meet through the course of the film Joe Soares, a former All-American who played the sport for many years until the national team abruptly dropped him because he was too old. Soares was so upset by this decision that he bailed on his country and went up to Canada to become their head coach. Zupan and Soares are not one of those pair of quadriplegics that share in a mutual respect of one another because of their physical similarities. They seem to be fiercely competitive and not too afraid of hurling four and twelve letter expletives at each other out of pure hatred. Under Soares, Team Canada beat the Americans for the first time in 12 years, which is vindication for Soares but salt on the wound for Zupan.
The film sort of sets up Zupan as the protagonist, I guess, but Soares is arguably the trickiest person in the film to encapsulate. He had a rotten childhood where he reveals that his father hit him as a disciplinary tool. He lost the use of his legs to polio at an early age and did not get a wheelchair until later in life. He was a mean customer at grade school and rather lovingly recounts how he beat the hell out of another kid that made fun of his condition. This may have been the precursor sign of his icy and ferocious competitor edge he demonstrated with Team Canada later.
Soares is also a family man, but still needs to work on his social skills. When he goes out on an anniversary supper with his wife he all but kills the romance when responds to his wife’s toast of “To you my love” with “To Team Canada.” He also has a young son – Robert – who loves the arts and seems to want to have nothing to do with sports. This, of course, upsets dad. Soares makes his son do the most depressing and menial of household chores for him, like dusting his wall of trophies, maybe as a form of perverse punishment for not being the athlete he envisioned him to be. Yet, after a mind altering change in Soares’ life that is miraculously caught on film (and will not be spoiled by me) Soares sort of re-evaluates his existence, not to mention his feelings about his son.
Beyond this extraordinary and moving look at the Soares and Zupan family, we also get an in-depth look at the other players as well, where they discuss matters that all of us were probably afraid to ask out of personal embarrassment. They sure don’t seem embarrassed at all, especially when talking about how quadriplegics have sex with their significant others. The documentary shows snippets of a real sex techniques tape that graphically displays the ways in which a person with a disability can still enjoy intercourse. Some of the men have also developed their own methods out of experimentation, and their thoughts only fuels this film's willingness to explore these men as people first and athletes second. Perhaps even more enlightening is the fact that these men speak out on just about everything that both drives them being a quad athlete and all that drives them crazy about being stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives. MUDERBALL has an unexpected level of compassion and humanity in its portrayal of extreme sports stars. These men may be crude and rude, but they definitely speak from the heart.
MUDERBALL, much like another non-fiction entry from earlier this year – ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM – demonstrates in fine form why this genre only continues to make more ground in terms of my critical respect. Maybe the key behind documentaries is that they have a sort of ethereal appeal in terms of their ability to deal with and portray real life better than any typical Hollywood drama could ever hope to. It shows all of these people struggling with the type of daily tasks that we take for granted (imagine putting on your pants or washing the dishes being a quadriplegic with limited mobility).
But the film is also a miraculous, if unsentimental, look at hope. It's not so much a sports picture nor is it one about overcoming one’s disability. It seems to be overwhelmingly about deconstructing our very notions of those with exceptionalities and it challenges some of our already preconceived ideas. After all, these guys are not out to get your sympathy or warm prayers and heartfelt sentiments. They really, deep down, want to drive you into the floor and inflict pain on you. MURDERBALL never garners our sympathy, but it completely wins over our empathy. It is one of 2005’s most unflinching and honest films and proves that truth is not only stranger than fiction...it's usually always more compelling and engaging.