To quad athletes in `Murderball,' winning is all


August 05, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Mark Zupan and Joe Soares are neither matinee-idol handsome nor culturally refined; they don't give a darn what anyone thinks about them. Which may be the ultimate irony of Murderball. Thanks to this bracingly honest and ceaselessly compelling documentary, they're going to wind up with thousands of fans, who love them for being exactly what they are: loud, abrasive, abusive and dedicated to only two things, winning and having a good time.

Zupan and Soares are the twin focal points of the film, which offers an introduction to a sporting world most people never knew existed.

Quad rugby may be as extreme a sport as there is: two teams of quadriplegics, hurtling across an indoor court in wheelchairs that look like something out of Mad Max, have at each other with a bloodthirst that's simultaneously off-putting and invigorating. With demonic frenzy, players crash their wheelchairs into each other at speeds hard to imagine. The only object: keep the guy with the ball from crossing the goal line, using whatever means necessary. Niceties of the game? Easy, there are none.

As an introduction to such a sport, Murderball comes with a built-in fascination factor that singlehandedly is enough to satisfy most audiences. But filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro give their film a more universal appeal by focusing not only on the game, but on the kind of men who play it.

These guys may be quadriplegics, but they're not cripples, and the last thing they want from anyone is pity.

As the film makes clear, being a quadriplegic doesn't mean being helpless - the first of many surprises awaiting audiences who hear the word and think immediately of Christopher Reeve, strapped into a chair and heroically struggling to simply move his big toe. The term instead refers to anyone with impaired movement in both arms and both legs.

Soares is a quadriplegic thanks to a childhood bout with polio, while Zupan was hurled from the back of his buddy's pickup truck in a crash that followed a night of drinking.

Soares' entire life now revolves around quad rugby (nicknamed murderball, for reasons that quickly become obvious). For years, he had been a mainstay of the U.S. team, leading it to international glory. But when organizers left him off the team in 2000, saying he was too old, an enraged Soares signed on as coach of the Canadian team, vowing revenge.

Zupan, a civil engineer living in Austin, matches Soares growl for growl; the two men hate each other and make no attempt to gloss over their differences. Zupan and his teammates regard Soares as an over-the-hill traitor, while Soares sees them as ungrateful upstarts, beneath contempt.

Murderball spares nothing in its depiction of the rivalry between the two men, and flinches not for a second as that animosity is played out on the court. Using cameras mounted on the chairs themselves, Rubin and Shapiro make viewers feel every collision, endure every crunched bone, cheer every thunderous hit. As testimony to the intensity of the competitive spirit, either in a wheelchair or not, Murderball has few rivals.

The film is also an unsparing look at these men's private lives, assisted incalculably by their willingness - nay, eagerness - to talk about anything, and everything. We meet the players' girlfriends and wives, find out more about their sex lives than perhaps we want to know. The players - and the group extends beyond Zupan and Soares, to include several other members of the U.S. team - come across as men with insatiable appetites for just about everything; that they're in wheelchairs is just a fact, not a limitation.

But Murderball isn't simply about thrills, or about watching people who don't understand the concept of "can't." It also introduces us to Keith Cavill, a young motocross racer who broke his neck in a 2003 accident and is still coming to terms with his limited mobility; the scene where he sees his motorbike for the first time since the accident is almost hard to watch. But his face lights up noticeably when he meets Zupan, and realizes, perhaps for the first time, that there remain outlets for his daredevil spirit.

Zupan and Soares, however, give the film its soul, and both men offer emotionally complicated side stories that enrich the film even further. For Zupan, it's his relationship with his longtime best friend, Chris Igoe, who was driving the pickup the night of the accident (he didn't realize Zupan had passed out in the back). The two have remained friends, although it's clear that Igoe retains a sense of guilt that he can't shake off, no matter how hard Zupan insists he should.

For Soares, it's his relationship with his decidedly non-athletic son; the two seem absolutely unable to communicate - until a near-death experience softens Soares just enough to let him see that his son's musical ability is a gift worth cherishing.

Those subplots, however, are as sentimental as Murderball gets. For 90 percent of its running time, it's a foul-mouthed, in-your-face, testosterone-drenched tribute to the word indomitable. It's rough and profane and, in ways that might surprise you, profound. It's also one of the most involving movies of the year.


Directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro

Released by ThinkFilm

Rated R (language and sexual content)

Time 88 minutes

Sun Score **** (four stars)

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