'Murderball': Rowdy, Winning and Real

Mark Zupan has the ball in a quad rugby match in
Mark Zupan has the ball in a quad rugby match in "Murderball." (Thinkfilm)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005

IT'S NOT enough to say "Murderball" is the best smash-mouth rugby documentary featuring muscular dudes in wheelchairs ever made. That's easy to say. So let's pump our wheels, thump our chests and take things further: It's one of the most powerful films of the year.

Don't like rugby? Don't know squat about the sport? Doesn't matter. Don't fancy the idea of a dull-umentary about "special" athletes -- you know, the kind you congratulate yourself for supporting? The guys featured in "Murderball" would so kick your pity in the soft parts if they caught you thinking that. You don't have to try to love this movie. It'll knock you down on its own. And speaking of topples -- something you see a lot of here -- there isn't a sentimental stumble in the whole film.

Take Mark Zupan. Well-built guy with a satanic goatee. Got a little wasted one night a few years back. Passed out in the back of his best buddy's pickup. His friend, who didn't even know Mark was in the back, went driving. He was drunk, too.

Mark found himself flipped into a canal hanging on for dear life for close to 14 hours. His spine was cracked. He'll never walk again. But he's a star player on the American national quad rugby team. He's got a hot girlfriend and a world-class attitude about his life. And in this riveting movie, we watch Mark and his teammates take on the world's best, including Canada -- coached by arch rival Joe Soares, who was so miffed at being cut from the American team, the forty-something behemoth became coach of Canada.

The sport, played on basketball courts, is now called "quad rugby." (As one player puts it, you can't get corporate sponsorship for a sport called "murderball.") Four players per team, most of whom suffered injuries to the spine or neck, roll around in "Road Warrior"-style chariots and throw a ball around.

No one has the same physical impairments. Some are partial quadriplegics, for instance, who have mobility from the waist up and flexibility in the hands. Others with limited dexterity smear their palms with glue so they can catch the ball. Their impairments are assessed with a numerical value such as 2.0. Each team is restricted to a certain cumulative figure.

The idea is to carry that ball across the touchline at each end of the "field," no matter how. Players stop each other from crossing the line any way they can, whether it means blocking them with a wheelchair or simply sending them flying.

But though it follows the American-Canadian rivalry in big clashes at the 2002 World Championship in Sweden and the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, "Murderball" isn't just about sports. It's an emotional visit with some determined young men (and one middle-aged guy in major denial) who refuse to accept limitations in every aspect of their lives.

They struggle with Velcro straps on their shoes. They wrestle with one another on the ground. They listen to music. They visit rehab centers to give other "quads" moral encouragement. They chase women. And it turns out, most are capable of enjoying sexual relationships, too. (There are some graphic discussions that make the movie unsuitable for preteen children.) They are, surprise, surprise, no different from anyone else. They're jocks on wheels.

Filmmakers Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin follow some very affecting stories, too. In the movie's weakest thread, they follow Keith Cavill, a recent quad who was injured on one of his beloved motorbikes, as he becomes aware of the quad rugby team and contemplates a new way to enjoy sports and to rediscover his adventurous impulses. More affectingly, they reveal more about Soares than his enmity toward his own country's team. His anger is just part of a saga that includes his refusal to accept his middle age and a testy relationship with his preteen son and wife. After a further medical setback in his life, Soares changes touchingly for the better. Then there's the continuing story of Zupan and Chris Igoe, the best friend who drove the quad rugby player into the canal. Things have been tense between the two since the accident. But over the course of two years, they slowly come together. And a relationship that died along with Mark's former life is reborn.

MURDERBALL (R, 86 minutes) -- Contains sexual content and frank discussion, sports violence and obscenity. At Cinema Arts Theatre and Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row.

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