The eye-opening documentary Murderball takes an intriguing idea of introducing people to the sport of quad rugby, only to find even more drama and action taking place off the court.
That’s largely because filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro had the good fortune to find a group of men that are as passionate about their sport as they are about life. Nicknamed Murderball, quad rugby is quickly, but effectively explained by the documentary as a fast-paced contest featuring teams of quadriplegics working to score goals, while attempting to avoid violent collisions from opponents. All competitors participate while riding in wheelchairs reinforced by metal, making them more like battering rams with wheels.
The players are quick to dispel a somewhat popular misconception of quadriplegics as people with no use of their limbs. They all have sustained neck and/or spinal cord fractures, but with varying degrees of limb disabilities, with those serving as ratings for the purpose of the sport. For example, someone who has little impairment in their limbs would rate a 3.0, while a 0.5 would be given to a player with little or next to no use of their limbs. Those ratings are then applied during the game, with no team allowed to have the players exceed 8.0 on the court at one time.
By the first time the sport is shown on camera, viewers are given a quick introduction into its excitement, with frequent shots of wheelchairs crashing into each other, occasionally knocking competitors over. But far from being intimidated by the sport’s physical nature, these players thrive on it. They want to leave no doubt that they are not handicapped – they are athletes who just happen to compete in a wheelchair.
Away from the competition, the film largely focuses on the U.S. quad rugby team, as they compete in a pair of world championships (yes, this sport has participants from many countries) and the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece. It also looks at the life of one of the team’s former players, Joe Soares, who, bitter at being cut from the U.S. squad, decides to coach the Canadian national team. Soares, a fiercely competitive man, is seen by the U.S. team as a traitor, but is clearly a driving force in making the Canadian team a serious threat to the Americans longtime dominance in the sport. The fact that U.S. team leader Mark Zupan and Soares clearly dislike each other is played up to good dramatic and comic effect by the film.
Many of the players recollect how they came to be in a wheelchair and what their life is like today. Among the more compelling people is Zupan, arguably one of the world’s best quad rugby players, who details how a late night of drinking at 18, led to him breaking his neck after being thrown from the back of his best friend’s truck into a ditch, where he would remain for more than 13 hours before being rescued. More than 10 years removed from that day, Zupan looks back on the incident with no anger or bitterness, simply seeing it as the end of one chapter in his life.
Many of the other players interviewed have similar feelings about their lives, displaying an admirably positive attitude about situations that could easily have had lesser people mired in depression and anger. Not that those feelings didn’t ever surface, as one describes his initial withdrawal from society, even being against going out to get the mail, for fear of people staring at him.
Many years removed from the accidents that changed their lives, their stories are mixed in with the rehab of Keith Cavill, a young man who is only months removed from the accident that led to him becoming a quadriplegic. The uncertainty and fear of his new life is given a genuine jolt of excitement when Zupan comes to the rehab center to introduce the residents to quad rugby.
Much like the superior documentary Hoop Dreams, Murderball is more focused on the players and their lives rather that the sport itself. In actuality, the film moves by a bit too quickly, as it would have been nice to have seen the team in more off the court interaction. But with this many people occupying screen time, perhaps the directors felt less is more.
Sure, the collisions of the armored wheelchairs in Murderball are impactful, resulting in numerous metal dents. But it’s the personalities of the people in the chairs that will leave the real lasting impression.
(Rated R for language and some sexual content.)