Are you ready for some...MURDERBALL??? Judge Bill Gibron says you should be, especially after watching this amazing documentary, one of the year's best films.
Dream. Believe. Achieve.
"Disabled" is a very ugly word. It implies so much, and aspires to so little. As a declaration or title, it's like a living death sentence, a constant reminder of how unusual and outside the norm a physically "different" person is perceived to be. A man without an arm could be one of the greatest doctors in the world, and instead of celebrating his diagnostic and curative powers or applauding his bedside manner, we see the missing limb first, and begin the demeaning definition from there. Though we hate to admit it, we stare. We look at the crippled and the mentally challenged and instantly believe that the injury or defect defines them. For some odd, inexcusable reason, they no longer look like a person. They are blindness, retardation, paralysis, or palsy.
Someone like Mark Zupan would kick your ass for even thinking that way. So would all of his friends. As members of the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Team, these bad boys with neck breaks (their words) all share one thing in common—a fairly ordinary desire to compete and win. But it's the fact that they are quadriplegics that throws society into a tizzy. Without seeing the burning desire inside these guys, the world wants them to be safe, secure, pampered, and protected. It's for their own "good." Yet all these gritty gladiators want is to taste metal and bash heads. In an attempt to dispel PC pronouncements and proffer some cold honest truth, documentary directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro followed these "athletes" around for four years, recording their efforts to live up to a standard sports designation. Naturally they do, and as a result, Murderball stands as one of the best films every made about people, their passion, and the perception we have of both.
Facts of the Case
Wheelchair Rugby started in Canada. There, it was called Murderball. Naturally, no sport with such a gratuitous—if still pretty cool—name could ever find worldwide acceptance, so the label was changed. But the competition remains as cutthroat and nasty today as it did back when it bore the more homicidal moniker. Ever since it went legitimate, the United States has dominated the sport. They've won medals, trophies, and championships, both at home and internationally. At the 2004 World Cup, the heavily-favored Americans faced the equally competitive Canadians in the finals. The result leads to bitterness and bad feelings all around.
Months later, the two teams square off again at the Paralympics in Athens, Greece. The rematch is especially hard on two of the chief competitors—the tough and intimidating Mark Zupan and the Canadian head coach Joe Soares. For Mark, defeat is not an option—ever!—while Joe still resents being kicked off the American team for being "too old." Their personal drama will play out against the backdrop of this international competition as challengers from around the globe test the Murderball muscle of the reigning world champions—and the equally pissed off runners-up.
It is easy to argue that Murderball is about dismissing preconceived notions. After all, this is a documentary about handicapped athletes who are more focused and determined about their sport than many a snot-nosed multimillionaire professional. It sets its story up to be a classic Rocky-style confrontation, with a former champion trying to regain prominence after an unexpected defeat at the hands of a turncoat associate. But instead of centering the narrative drive around the "big game" (in this case, the 2004 Paralympics in Athens), we get a far more personal and profound plotline. And the subject matter, by its very definition, threatens to constantly careen over into sappy, over-sentimentalized territory. But the truth is that there is more honesty and non-melodramatic meaning in the lives we see depicted here on the screen than in a hundred hokey "illness of the month" made for Lifetime TV movies.
This is perhaps the best documentary of the year for reasons dealing directly with the sentiments stated above. We have been so trained by the standard cinematic (and social) order, blinded by the infinite possibilities of any and every story that when something indeed confounds our expectations, we are a little leery at first. We feel the tears welling up in our eyes or a sense of indirect pride beginning to sink into our soul and we stop to wonder where this moviemaking manipulation finds its source. But the reality is actually simple when addressing this film. Murderball makes us feel because of the people who participate in wheelchair rugby. They're not media-hungry stars or overpaid prima donnas. They're not out to dispute their signing bonuses or use their agent as a glorified, ungrateful mouthpiece. Instead, these are actual human beings with a hunger to compete, to feel normal in a world that wants them to stay on the wheelchair access ramp where they supposedly belong.
More than any other film of its type, Murderball dispels the myth that the physically challenged are somehow more sainted, or gifted, than the rest of us. Sure, many of these players could bust any of our butts, and a few are fueled by an anger born of stressful social stigmatization. But many are just average Joes and Jims who woke up one day to discover their necks broken, along with the rest of their body. For them, playing rugby is a chance to redeem their real inner self, to come out of the shell of limited mobility and lay a whole lot of hurting on someone. Sports are perhaps the most primal of personal experiences, from the fellowship of team competition to the burning individual desire to win. Yet the athletes here want to make something very clear. They are not out for "everyone gets a trophy for participation" plaudits of something like the Special Olympics. They live for contact, to snatch back some of the potent physicality that fate forced from them. That can't be achieved in some yearly celebration of "uniqueness."
There are many enigmatic characters in this film, individuals who immediately leap out as icons—both singular and social—to the internal curative power of playing wheelchair rugby. Much is made of the goateed bad boy Mark Zupan, upper body perfectly pumped and attitude fully loaded like an X Games contestant on crack. He is indeed a star here, a ready-to-be-replicated rebel with a flow of tribal tattoos offsetting his single-minded pursuit of sports perfection. Zupan becomes the natural center for many not only because of his laser-like leadership, but because he represents a deconstruction of the standard handicapped person. He's angry. He's quiet and insular. He is legitimately in love with Wheelchair Rugby and, in many ways, the competition defines him. Instead of letting his partial paralysis become his recognizable characteristic, he lets his playing persona speak on the Murderball court. Amazingly, his disability melds into him, becoming as important—or unimportant—as his red beard or shaved head.
But if Murderball belongs to anybody, it is the unabashed Benedict Arnold of the U.S. team, fiery fallen idol Joe Soares. A true tempest in a disabled teapot, brimming with anger over his treatment at the hands of the Americans, he is a man with a singular goal—help Canada win the titles that the Yanks usually take. Blood pressure constantly boiling over, his Type-A personality tainting almost every relationship he has, Joe is a perfect aggravating anti-hero—a guy you want to see put in his place, but who you also sympathize and empathize with. You can see that he's mistreated by his ex-teammates (it is they who label him traitorous and turncoat) and that his obsession is eating him alive, but you also understand how important this is to him. It's just as important to Zupan or any of the other players. Without Wheelchair Rugby, they have a handicap. With it, they have a legitimate athletic career.
Thankfully, the narrative saves both men from being painfully self-important. In Joe's case, something shocking and life threatening has to happen before he suddenly sees the light. The transformation is fundamental, as well as intriguing to watch. In Zupan's case, however, it's a pair of events that begin to break down his badass barriers. We learn that his affliction occurred as the result of a car accident with his best buddy at the wheel. Zupan has forgiven his pal, but his friend has yet to forgive himself. They haven't spoken in years, and a reunion and reconciliation is high atop everyone's healing hit list. Similarly, Zupan reaches out to a new patient, a BMX/ Motor Cross casualty named Keith. Seeing the kind of connection he can make with someone new to paralysis and how rugby lightens their incredible burden of adjustment, the brave-faced hero glimpses an outer legitimacy that comes from something other than winning. These facets gradually grow inside Zupan, keeping him from imploding under the inner pressures he constantly places on himself.
The result is the very definition of a human interest story. It is so refreshing to see how directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro keep the story from shifting over into exploitation or sentimentality. Every emotional moment here—and there are several—are well-earned and honest. There is no attempt to manipulate the truth, twist the facts to fit some manner of big-deal finale and nary an activist thug or high-minded moralist around to burst the bubble of these dedicated men. Everything is balanced, weighed out with and against each other to maintain an innate level of authenticity and truth. Even toward the end, when we think we are witnessing a final showdown between Zupan and the Americans, and Soares and the Canadians, Rubin and Shapiro trick us. They allow us to be the ones inventing the reality that exists between the players and their sport. But the truth they turn out is far more compelling—and classic.
Murderball then becomes a film so refreshingly candid and crafty that it does the unthinkable—it renders disability unimportant. It chalks it up to a kind of quadriplegic personality quirk, a physiological pseudo-superstition that has to be dealt with and overcome. Inspiring, uplifting, cleverly conceived, and destined to destroy myths about the handicapped that still exist in society, this movie is like a mission statement. It will foster a newfound respect for the disabled. Making sure people have access to parking spaces, ramps, and other necessary human services is one thing, but discounting their ability because others would like to use their limitations as an excuse is ludicrous. Joe Soares and Mark Zupan are no more flawed than people with underdeveloped tennis backhands or lame jump shots. They may not be able to use parts of their bodies, but the rest of them is raring to fight. It's the barrier that we, not the physically challenged, put up that causes the most harm for the handicapped. According to Murderball, it might be time to stop.
Using divergent filming techniques—hand-held, camcorder, digital, and purposefully professional—as well as many different archival elements, one would expect that Murderball would have some vile visual impairments. But aside from the standard grain, some minimal flaring, and the occasional incorrect color, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks really good. It's not going to win any awards, but it also doesn't fancy up the facts with overtly expert cinematography. On the sound side, the film is offered in a rather limited Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 presentation. The channels get limited workout, and the only time the speakers explode is during the slam-bang game-day ballistics—or when the TRL/Headbanger's Ball friendly soundtrack kicks in. Otherwise, the conversations are clear and discernible, and the ancillary auditory elements are just fine.
Speaking of MTV, they make the most of this release (they helped in the distribution of the film) by providing a few choice extras. First up is something called "Jackass Presents Murderball featuring Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O and Mark Zupan." After a quartet of cast members from the landmark MTV stunt show (Chris Pontius and Wee Man are along for the ride as well) take in the film—we see scenes of them watching the movie in a special screening—they meet up with members of the Murderball cast. Everyone gets plastered and some of the gang's patented derring-do is shown. The next day, they get together at someone's pool to play a series of Jackass-inspired games. Zupan and Steve-O have a Black Eye Battle, while others compete in a cattle prod-off. If you like Jackass, you'll love this 22-minute bonus. If you hate it, you'll probably not like the way in which the individuals—both in and out of wheelchairs—risk their lives for the thrill of a challenge—or the sake of a sick joke.
We are also treated to a collection of deleted scenes. Most are meaningless, but one in particular proves that even the physically handicapped enjoy a good food fight now and then. Several members of the cast appear on Larry King Live, and we see the entire 45-minute segment. It's one of the rare cases where the talk show host's patented lack of preparation (he proudly proclaims that he goes into most Q&As cold) hurts what could have been a fascinating face-off. The Making-Of featurette gives us some rare insight into the labor of love this project became, and jaunty Joe Soares is back for an "update" which allows him to address some misconceptions and (what he considers) misunderstandings that resulted from the film's release. Along with a lame few minutes from the New York premiere (the sound is very bad and you can't really hear what's being said) and a totally out of place THINK/MTV Disability Awareness Link (one of those touchy-feely PC pronouncements the film really rallies against), we get a decidedly mixed bag of added features.
Thankfully, the commentaries are very good. The first features Murderball players Mark Zupan, Andy Cohn, and Scott Hogsett. As usual, these guys spend more time ribbing and ridiculing each other than actually speaking about the background of their sport or the film. Still, as an opportunity to hear them discuss the impact the movie has had on their lives, as well as getting a chance to understand their newfound perspective on fame, this alternate narrative is excellent. Even better though is the crew discussion. Producer Jeff Mandell and directors Shapiro and Rubin step up and give us a play-by-play, blow-by-blow description of how this movie was made—as well as many of the ancillary issues they had to deal with. Anyone interested in making their own documentary should listen to this instructive and insightful discussion. It really lays out the problems and potential pitfalls in the fact-based film game.
It is prophetic that, in an era where political correctness and overprotection of personal idiosyncrasy has come to form most if not all of our public opinions, a movie like Murderball arrives and literally craps all over such a safe approach. There is a difference between acknowledging a difference and judging/treating people solely based on same. For too long, individuals with disabilities have been cast as fragile, frightened—and worst of all—flawed. None of those descriptions apply to the men who participate in wheelchair rugby. Like bad eyesight or male pattern baldness these quadriplegic competitors don't allow their now-natural infirmity to dissuade them from their pursuit of excellence. All they want is a chance to prove themselves outside of the stigma attached to their situation. Oddly enough, not everyone wants to give them that chance. That is why they have to fight so hard. That is why their sport is so brutal. And that is why Murderball is one of the best documentaries in the entire genre. It, and the story of these incredible individuals, should not be missed.
Not guilty. Murderball and all its participants, cast, and crew are free to go and kick some butt!
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• Full-Length Audio Commentary with players Mark Zupan, Scott Hoggsett, and Andy Cohn
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