If the dominant American player in the most extreme of all sports were to be cut–too old–from the U.S. national team, that would be sad. If he then, in a fit of anger, became the head coach of Team Canada, and proceeded to beat the overwhelmingly favored U.S. in the 2002 championships, sadness would turn to rage. And if the extreme sport in question were named “Murderball,” and played by quadriplegics who bludgeon one another in homemade steel wheelchairs that look more like junkyard tanks . . . well, that would be the perfect topic for a documentary.
And so it is. Sports, violence, nationalism–all are on hand in Murderball, the extraordinary new documentary by Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry-Alex Rubin. Set against the backdrop of the 2002 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships and the 2004 Paralympics, the film is an unflinching wheelchair-level glimpse into the lives of a fascinating group of quadriplegic men. (Contrary to popular belief, “quadriplegic” means only that all four limbs are in some way impaired, be it slight or total; in quad rugby, for example, there is a point system for disability.)
The largest amount of screen time is devoted to Mark Zupan, who–with his dagger-like goatee, ripped muscles, vicious set of tattoos, and bellicose utterances–is the sport’s enfant terrible. (He has landed a Reebok commercial.) The rest of the cast is equally engaging. There is Team Canada’s coach: Joe Soares, who suffers a heart attack during the film and becomes a better father. There is Scott Hogsett, a brash, easy-going man in his mid-20s who uses his infirmities to their full advantage when he hits the bar scene. (“The more pitiful I am,” he explains with a sly grin and a twinkle in his eye, “the more the women like me.”) There is Bob Lujano, who is a quadruple amputee, and the most introspective of the bunch. (“I use everything I have to get through life,” he tells a group of kids who ask how he eats pizza with his elbows. “We all have to use everything we have.”) And then there’s Keith Cavill, a recent quadriplegic in the tortuous midst of rehab; his narrative counterbalances the antics of the others.
Murderball draws its strength from many sources–its cast, its masterful use of music–but it is most remarkable for what it avoids: an overt attempt to dispel stereotypes or evoke sympathy. It refuses to sink into the maudlin bog that can easily mire a disability documentary (e.g., Jan Krawitz’s tedious 1984 Little People). No one in Murderball wants you to feel sorry for them, and they don’t want a pat on the back. “We’re not going for a hug, we’re going for f***ing gold metal,” Hogsett explains. Zupan, more concisely: “Come on, hit me! I’ll hit you back!”
Humor carries the film through tough areas–most notably, the bedroom. Surely everyone wonders, but no one ever asks–even though this cast is all too willing to discuss sex. Yes, in fact, many quadriplegics function just fine in the bedroom–as we learn in a bawdy, hilarious sequence, where some of the men explain, in lurid detail, the modifications and ingenuity their disabilities necessitate.
The directors know to mix it up, to counterpoint the eccentric and the extreme: One minute you’re laughing as Zupan trash talks Soares, the next you’re gritting your teeth as wheelchairs smash into each other, spilling their occupants onto the court. (Asked if there’s a technique to falling, Zupan suggests: “Don’t lead with your head.”) A moment later, you’re close to tears as Cavill returns home from the rehab center and, after checking out his new handicap accessories, says simply, “Everything’s nice, but this sucks”–”this” meaning not his gleaming wheelchair or handlebar toilet, but his new life, in which what “was once normal will never be the same.”
A similar balancing act makes the other characters just as compelling. They are red-blooded and fiery, they drink beer, and they try to score girls at bars. But they can also be sensitive: inspirational by default, not choice. “The first two years are the hardest,” Hogsett explains. “It’s a mindf*** in the beginning. And then you either make it or you don’t.” Murderball takes you down that road, showing what it really means to live–to fight, survive, and prevail. The human being, whether able-bodied or a wheelchair warrior, is endowed with resilience, and only an expert portrayal can do it justice. Murderball is just that–even if it requires a little bloodletting along the way. After all, in life you either make it or you don’t.
–Alston B. Ramsay is an associate editor of National Review.