Murderball is a documentary about a select group of individuals who live life at a level that most people, able-bodied or otherwise, never manage to achieve. The fact that the people here are quadriplegic is as much beside the point as it is exactly the point.
The sport of “Murderball” is officially known as quad rugby or wheelchair rugby. The first thing you learn, and which the film makes a point of explaining clearly, is that quadriplegic means someone who has lost at least partial function in all four limbs. It does not always mean the Christropher Reeve-type immobility that people often associate with the word. These guys are athletes, fiercely competitive and also aggressive and macho. Their sport is a fast-paced version of rugby played with specially reinforced wheelchairs designed to slam into each other. If you didn’t know it was real, you might think it was something dreamed up for a Rollerball or Mad Max future universe.
All of the players were athletes in their pre-injury lives, and that need for competition and adrenaline has drawn them to this fast and brutal sport. The film focuses on three of these individuals (and individuals is definitely the word). Mark Zupan is the current star of the U.S. team. Looking as much like a biker as he does an athlete, with his shaved head, goatee and tattoos, he is feared for his tough and aggressive style of play. Joe Soares is a former star of the American team, now coaching for Canada. Viewed as a traitor by some of his former teammates, he has one burning ambition: to beat the team that cut him when he still felt he was in his prime. Soares is a demanding, type-A personality who stresses himself right into a heart attack midway through the film. While his wife watches through operating room window, he briefly flatlines on the table.
The third person featured is Keith Cavill, a former motocross rider and newly injured quadriplegic just beginning his rehabilitation. He not only shows what people like Zupan and his teammates had to overcome to get where they are, but he also represents the next generation of quad rugby players. The scene in which Zupan visits Keith’s rehab center and introduces him to his Murderball chair is quietly informative in the way it shows how the sport helps an adreneline junkie adapt to his new reality.
We see other transitions, too. Before his heart attack, Joe Soares is a brusque, sometimes harsh disciplinarian, critical of his son’s lack of athletic achievement and unimpressed by his scholastic and musical excellence. The near-death experience mellows Soares into the kind of dad who dashes cross-county to attend his son’s concert and proudly hangs academic awards next to his own quad rugby trophies.
Don’t let that fool you into thinking that Murderball is heartwarming or uplifting in the traditionally condescending sense. It can be inspiring in its own way if you can get past the brutal frankness of the athletes’ R-rated jock talk. This film deals directly and without blinking with almost every aspect of their lives, including their sex lives, a major issue to a lifelong jock whose body no longer works the way it used to. If there is any justice, this film will be the odds-on favorite to take Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars, but I wonder how the stodgy Academy voters will deal with a not-quite-warm-and-fuzzy protagonist like Mark Zupan. As two high school buddies put it, “He was an asshole even before the chair.”
Unlike other films I’ve seen about the disabled, however, Murderball does not try to portray these men as “just like the rest of us, except for the chair.” They’re not. These are extraordinary people, but they would probably have been extraordinary even without their injuries.