The highest praise I can offer Murderball, a documentary about wheelchair rugby, is that it’s spiritual and inspirational without being remotely sanctimonious. This in itself is no mean feat but what makes the film – a collaborative effort between Dana Adam Shapiro, Jeffrey Mandel and Henry Alex Rubin – so enjoyable is that the uplifting message is contained within a funny, profane and compelling human narrative where the occasional misguided stabs at arty metaphor can be forgiven.
Quadriplegic Rugby – once called Murderball - is played by people who have a degree of impairment in all their limbs, often having broken their necks. It’s an insanely aggressive sport which largely involves wheelchair-bound players slamming their chairs into each other while trying to gain possession of the ball.
Everyone involves is out to win and there is absolutely no expectation of sympathy or charity on the part of anyone. It’s the absolute polar opposite of all those documentaries which are intended to make us weep compassionate tears about how brave all these poor handicapped people must be. The complete refusal to engage in special pleading, and the equivalent refusal to extend any sympathy to each other, is inspiring in itself and much more engaging than the usual painfully liberal approach. The mechanics of how it is played are absorbing
The stories in the film would be heartbreaking in just about any other context. The players have been paralysed after car accidents, ridiculously inane fights which led to moments of insane aggression, childhood illnesses and the specifics are often horrifying. Mark Zupan, for example, the major star of Team USA, was involved in a car accident when his friend was drink-driving and spent eleven hours in cold water before being rescued. Zupan is a wonderful character, the sort of person that documentarians dream of finding. “He was very much an asshole before he got in the wheelchair,” says one of his Zupan’s friends clearly convinced that the paralysis has had no effect on his behaviour. But what Zupan’s somewhat obnoxious, often very funny behaviour tends to conceal is a profound insight into his own condition, generosity and affection towards his teammates, and an astonishing capacity to overcome whatever life happens to throw at him.
At first, his and his fellow players obsession with sex, girls and booze seems a little odd, a judgement which betrays my own prejudices about quadriplegics, but soon their disability becomes irrelevant because they are people and not charity cases in wheelchairs. The humorous thing is that the only time the men play on their disability is when it comes to picking up women – “The more pitiful I am, the more the women like me, “ says Scott Hogsett, an impossibly good-looking blonde jock, “It takes about ten to twenty minutes of working that chick until she finally drops the bomb… can you do it?” Since this is an issue that many of us will confess to having a morbid fascination with, it’s valuable to have it explored with such humour. “When you’re in a chair, you usually like to eat pussy,” says Scott happily, while it’s generally accepted that the first thing it’s necessary for a quadriplegic to learn is some masturbation technique.
At the beginning of the film, we see how Team USA is put into second place by their principle enemy, Team Canada. Joe Soares – paralysed by childhood polio – is captain of Team Canada and not a popular figure. “If Joe was on the other side of the road on fire, I wouldn’t piss on him to put it out” says Zupan and this seems the general consensus on a man who is quite astonishingly unsympathetic and appears to actively court unpopularity in every area of his life. After tremendous success in the USA, Soares was dropped from the team and, having failed to force the team to reinstate him, decided to take his knowledge of the plays and strategies to Canada. Consequently, he’s considered a traitor by the American team and spends much of his time trying to piss off his former teammates. But indicative of the complexity of this documentary is that it doesn’t allow us to become complacent. Just as we’ve got Soares pegged as the bad guy, he suffers a heart attack and changes before our eyes.
He doesn’t become a sweetheart not particularly likeable but he seems to gain moral weight and his behaviour alters noticeably. This is particularly evident in his attitude towards his son. Prior to the heart attack, their relationship is hostile – Soares Junior isn’t particularly athletic and his father (whom he idolises) doesn’t appreciate his academic achievements – but afterwards there’s a growth in mutual affection which is genuinely touching.
The film is made in a somewhat jagged style – lots of fast cuts and shaky-cam – but it’s got an elegance which comes largely from intelligent editing and the knowledge of when to quit with the flashy stylistics and just concentrate on people talking. This is particularly effective when it comes to the story of Mark Zupan’s accident which was caused by his friend Christopher Igoe. The accident itself is terrible and Igoe’s honesty and remorse are very affecting. But what’s even more affecting – and this is part of the film’s deep spirituality – is the understanding (if not exactly forgiveness) that Zupan extends to Igoe and their meeting in the film is a riveting emotional set-piece. There’s also the story of Keith, recently hospitalised after a motocross accident, which suggests the problems of suddenly becoming quadriplegic and offers an insight into the mental challenges that the condition poses.
His return home is an extraordinary moment – all he can do is grin with a kind of disgust and say “This sucks!” These episodes are just what the film needs to balance the lengthy scenes of rugby, which are excitingly filmed but could have become monotonous in a less graceful piece of work. The final match between the two rival teams at the Athens “Special” Olympics in 2004 is enthralling to watch but this is as much because we’ve become involved with the people as the expected thrill of the seconds ticking away. Murderball doesn’t preach and this is why it communicates its message so effectively. You come away thinking that anything is possible without thinking that you’ve just attended a lesson.
Optimum’s Region 2 DVD of this MTV Films production is an impressive disc. The film is presented in its theatrical 1.85:1 ratio and, anamorphically enhanced, looks pretty good. The limitations of the source material are evident at times – shot on digital video, it is often grainy and the darker scenes are often unsightly. But it’s also sometimes sharp and attractive. The colours vary from scene to scene and are generally better during the games than elsewhere. There are two English soundtracks – Dolby 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 – and both are absolutely fine. The two channel mix is excellent while the 5.1 fills out the sound during the game sequences and gives the gentle, poignant music score a particularly pleasing showcase. Most reviewers have observed a certain distortion in the dialogue during the louder scenes but this is characteristic of the original film as I saw it in the cinema.
The extras are reasonably extensive and they’re quite entertaining. The two commentary tracks vary wildly in quality. The player commentary, which sounds like the more attractive option, is somewhat disappointing because the players – Mark, Scott and Andy Cohn – have just experienced a heavy night with the ‘Jackass’ team with the expected results. This makes them more subdued than you would expect and even their jokes at the expense of Joe Soares and the other players don’t quite work. The track by the directors is more satisfying. They go into the technical side of the film and the challenges offered by making this kind of documentary, and their enthusiasm for their work is infectious.
Also on this DVD are some surprisingly impressive featurettes. Principally, we get a 40 minute Larry King Live interview with five of the people who appear in the film. This is an excellent interview because King knows his stuff and is experienced enough to get the most out of his guests and the people who phone in with questions. “Murderball: Behind The Game” runs 20 minutes and is largely an extension of the film with interviews from some of the main participants. There’s an interview with Joe Soares which is as interesting for what he doesn’t say as for what he does – Soares isn’t an easy interviewee and there’s a lot of evasion in his answers. But he’s a fascinating character and it’s good to see more of him.
The deleted scenes run about ten minutes and aren’t composed of anything particularly revelatory. There’s a lot of jock humour, some touching reporting back from the school kids who met the USA team and truly jaw-dropping vignettes of life in the Soares family home where Joe’s mother manages the difficult task of being even more obnoxious than her son.
We also get a ‘Jackass Murderball Special’ which is exactly what you’d expect – some of the Team USA guys meet the Jackass ‘team’ for fun with cattle-prods and much manly behaviour. Amusingly, the swearing is edited out. Finally, the theatrical trailer is present along with a nice bit from the US premiere of the film where Keith gets a quad rugby chair.
The film is divided into a generous 23 chapter stops. Subtitles are offered for the film but not the extras.
Murderball is being shown on BBC 4 on Saturday 4th March
Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:12:34