Telling the story of the USA Men’s Quad Rugby (aka Murderball) team and their quest to win the 2002 World Championships and the 2004 Paralympics, Murderball gives us a rapid introduction to the difficulties faced by people with these injuries. By showing their ambition, passion and determination, we learn more of their spirit. The humour and the competition scenes add to this amazing film, and the sequences with a newly injured sportsman struggling to come to terms with his loss of function round out the offerings.
The stories include Mark Zupan, injured as an 18 year old, and now the poster child both of the sport and this film. With massive determination to win, an on-screen charisma unmatched by many Hollywood actors, and a pre-morbid angry streak – old school friends comment that blaming his mood and attitude on his injury would be false, he was like this before he got hurt – he stalks around the court, careening at full speed into others with the hope of knocking their chairs over. Controlling a modified wheelchair, that seems more like a wheel-tank and has prompted comparisons to Mad Max, he is an elite sportsman in an elite sport.
Another character featured is Keith Cavill, a motocross rider until his accident left him a partial quadriplegic several months before we meet him. Following him through rehabilitation, and then seeing his release home and his first exposure to Murderball via Mark Zupan, we are given an amazing insight into injury and recovery. The access given to the filmmakers allows us to see his first moments at home, when he finally realises his life will never be the same again. Stroking his motorbike helmet and staring at his bike wondering what will be, and then gleefully refusing to get out of the competition wheelchair and wanting to bump into Zupan to really try it out, we are shown that sport can heal as well as harm.
The balance between showing us the many stories, but not falling into cloying sentimentality, is beautifully managed by the directors as this could easily have become a soppy tale. Not once did this line get crossed. Instead, we are treated to the humour of these athletes, their amusement at tales of sexual conquest and their determination to succeed in their sport. We never feel sorry for these men, and nor should we – one athlete tells us of their trip to the Athens Paralympic Games – “We’re not going for a hug – we’re going for a fucking gold medal”.
The action scenes showing the playing of the sport itself are deftly handled, and provide an exciting counterpoint to the more quiet, reflective periods. The brutality of this sport, it seems, lies in the eyes of the beholder – these men are athletes, and expect to be competing with athletes, and it is only their injuries and deformities that stopped me from thinking of them as such. Sure, they run the risk of being injured, but they are competing at the top level, and my reaction says more of my own thoughts on these men and their ‘disabilities’ than it does of them.
The soundtrack includes suitably rousing heavy metal tracks, and complements the images well. The editing and direction are spot on. The choice of anecdotes, balancing sadness with humour, gradually builds our involvement with these men to the point I was quite affected by the final scenes. This is an extremely well-made piece of film.
If there is one documentary you should see in 2005, Murderball is it. If there is one sports movie you should see in 2005, this is it.
My favourite film of 2005, Murderball is incredible.Rating: