'Murderball': A Stirring Tutorial on Wheel Life

After Mark Zupan was paralyzed in a pickup truck accident, he turned to quad rugby as an outlet for his tough personality.
After Mark Zupan was paralyzed in a pickup truck accident, he turned to quad rugby as an outlet for his tough personality. (Thinkfilm Photos)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005

For we the lucky, they the unlucky are a different species. We don't see the eyes, the face, we don't hear the voice. We only see the chair, and to us it's gigantic, all-encompassing, defining. We shudder and exile the possibility of such a life from our minds because it's too threatening. Then we look away.

That's the genius of "Murderball": It doesn't look away, it looks at. It's an up-close and personal view of what is called quad rugby and, by extension, quadriplegic culture and life. It not only celebrates the spinally injured men (with limited use of all four limbs) who excel at this hyper-violent sport, it also removes the penumbra of difference from them. It turns out they're us, only in wheelchairs and the wheelchairs themselves turn out to be entirely incidental. You see exactly the same play of personalities in their group as in your own: a dominator, a subversive, a sensitive one, a funny one, a hero, a kook, a true believer. And you wonder about the gulf you let grow between you and them, as exactly the movie intends, and you conclude: What's the big deal?

In all other respects, "Murderball" is an exemplary example of modern nonfiction narrative. In fact, given the relative inexperience of the two directors, Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin, I was struck by how well they manipulate the elements of plot and character, back story, culture, narrative tension, comic relief and climax.

It's built upon a revelation that shouldn't be a revelation to anyone but always is: All worlds are political! That includes commando warfare, the New York City Ballet, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, semiconductor manufacturers, and Team USA of World Quad Rugby. And the schism rupturing that last institution is as follows: Joe Soares, the Ted Williams of quad rugby, grew old, and in his late thirties, after decades of stardom, he didn't make the team. He went off in a huff (as powerfully egoed alphas will do, ambulatory or not), got himself a job as coach of the Canadian National Wheelchair Rugby Team, and now leads it against his former teammates. At the Paralympics in Athens in 2004, he wants their butts so bad he can taste it.

Their attitude to their old friend, their mentor, their colleague -- up yours, buddy -- is very much in the spirit of profane invective that animates the movie.

That bitterness -- Joe the prodigal son vs. his old team, which doesn't share his professional goals and hates his guts -- informs the whole film and shapes its story. It's the opposite of faculty politics. The fight is so bitter because the stakes, in this case, are so high. The film is built around three big games -- a world-title game in Sweden, an exhibition, and the final late-round Paralympics confrontation -- which really are big.

The sport itself is lovingly photographed, and it looks like Agincourt refought in chairs by bearded, tattooed maniacs. The teams wheel and drive, form wedges, launch offensives and make stands, with the object being to free a man from the scrum, hit him with a bounce pass, and let him penetrate the goal. The primary defensive move is the collision, and the chairs frequently hit head-on, spilling each pilot to the floor. Quickly if bloodily (or concussively; no helmets), he will remount his vehicle and get back into the fray.

So the camera gets close, stays close and is close, and the fellows soon forget it's there. Personalities quickly emerge. Joe, of course, who could play Sgt. Rock if he had to, is over there, bellowing, preaching one-pointed commitment to total victory (he'd call in napalm strikes if he could!). Meanwhile, on this sideline, our heroes Mark Zupan, Andy Cohn, Scott Hogsett and Robert Lujano get ready for battle, and the directors paint them in some detail as well, while paying not a lot of attention to the team's two coaches.

Zupan is the natural movie star in all of this. Injured in a pickup truck accident, he returned after therapy to Georgia Tech where he got his degree (no dummy, he!) and then went into quad rugby full time as a natural outlet for his attitude (tough), his athleticism (tough) and his willingness to get hurt and to hurt others (way tough). Now, he's a figure out of "Mad Max," emblazoned with tattoos, his strong face turned demonic by the addition of a long, flame-red goatee, his will and energy relentless, and his willingness to scream obscenities, particularly at Soares, endless.

The movie even allows each character a subplot: Zupan's is his relationship with the close friend who was driving the pickup that night and who escaped unharmed while Zupan was sentenced to life in the chair. With Soares, it's the problematic relationship with his decidedly non-athletic son, Robert, who plays the viola and has chosen a different life from his kick-ass hunk of a father.

At the same time, "Murderball" reaches out to encompass other aspects of quad culture: the newly injured who are contending with the crushing depression that must arrive in the wake of the serious trauma; the sexual techniques of the chair-bound (played for laughs); even the difference between the Paralympics (serious world-class athletes who have suffered spinal injuries) and the Special Olympics (a less-rigorous competition for the less athletically gifted).

In all, it's the best sports documentary since "Hoop Dreams," a great piece of work.

Murderball (86 minutes, at Cinema Arts and Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row) is rated R for extreme profanity and sexual content.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company