If I could sum up the documentary Murderball, directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, in one word, that word would be: INTENSE. Murderball is a film that allows us a glimpse into the world of Quad Rugby and the lives of its participants. This film won the Documentary audience award at Sundance this year, and I can see why. Not only is Murderball a window into the lives of quadriplegics, it is also a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit.
Murderball is officially called Quad Rugby. A player quips that "the name Murderball isn't really marketable," but you can tell which name is most favored of the two. Played on a regulation size basketball court, the goal of the game seems deceptively simple. The player must advance the ball over a goal box line at the end of the court. Players are assigned a point value of 1.0 to 3.0 given based upon their degree of mobility. You can never have more than 8.0 points worth of players on the court at a time. You must bounce or pass the ball at least once every ten seconds, and other than that, basically anything goes. "You remember kill the man with the ball?" a smiling player asks us, as we see in his eyes that he can definitely remember the pre-accident, childhood game. Many reviewers who have seen the film like to compare the custom built wheelchairs to Mad Max, but I think the analogy is more attributable to the characters. The participants of the game of Murderball are raucous, rambunctious, and full of piss and vinegar in a way that makes them oh so cool. The wheelchairs do look like apocalyptic vehicles of death, though, equipped with solid wheels for more aerodynamic drag, battering rams, and custom made suspension systems for better handling. One of the most touching moments in the film is when Mark Zupan, a feisty red headed, goateed, Team USA player with sleeves of tattoos, gives a lecture at a rehabilitation center in New York. A newly injured boy is given the chance to take Mark's custom built gamechair for a spin and they can't get him out of it when it's time to leave. A new Murderball fan is born, and you will be too when you see this film.
The film goes on to follow the progress of Team USA, the ruling kings of the sport who have dominated the world championships for the past ten years. In documenting the triumphs and pitfalls of Team USA, we meet Joe Soares who is arguably the best player the sport has ever known. After an aging Soares loses a step, he is cut from the American Team and defects to Team Canada where he becomes the coach hell bent on defeating the Team USA that snubbed him. You initially think that Soares is being made out to be a villain, but the filmmakers deftly change the focus of that part of the film and follow Joe into his home life where he see his "Tough Love" relationship with his decidedly non-athletic son (who still excels just like his dynamo of a Dad, albeit in other directions).
The footage of the Murderball matches is interspersed with other personal stories that make this film about more than just a sports story. We learn about how some players were made quadriplegics. Some have incurable diseases, while Mark Zupan is thrown from the bed of a pickup driven by his drunken best friend. They are unreconciled during the production of the film, so their story takes on even more dramatic subtext than Mark's already intense portrayal.
I loved the Murderball matches, especially the final one where team USA plays Canada in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece. I would have liked to see a bit more of the actual game play, but the meat of what hits you in this film is the personal stories. When I feel the emotion after seeing men who are tougher than I will ever be break down and cry after losing an important match, it really endears me to these charismatic wheelchair warriors. Murderball is a story about people who won't quit, no matter what the disadvantage. I urge you to support this film and experience its totally rewarding message. If there's only one documentary you see in the Florida Film Festival, make it MURDERBALL.
Neil Norman is a freelance writer and a graduate of the University of Central Florida. Neil also works on independent film productions.
Murderball plays on Thursday, April 14, 2005 at 7:15pm at Enzian Theater and Saturday, April 16, 2005 at 9:00pm at Regal Winter Park Village.