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Murderball Review

By Shawn McKenzie 08/03/2005

After last year’s great slate of documentaries, why has this year been so bad?  Except for Inside Deep Throat, all of the documentaries I have seen have been either just okay or boring.  That’s why I’m glad to see Murderball come along and give us another good doc this year.

“Murderball” is actually the original name for a sport developed by three Canadians from Winnipeg, Manitoba, which is now called quad rugby (they changed the name for marketing reasons.)  It is an aggressive combination of wheelchair basketball and dodgeball.  The players are rated on a mobility point scale.  The ones with the most mobility handle the ball, while the one with the least are on defense.  They play on hardwood floors without any padding, and the object is to get the ball over the goal line with both wheels.  They ride in really cool-looking, custom-built, Mad Max-like wheelchairs, and they are probably tougher than athletes in other sports even try to be.

The movie mostly focuses on three specific individuals.  Joe Soares was a star player for Team America, but he was cut when age prohibited him from no longer playing.  He survived polio 43 years ago, and now he is the coach of Team Canada (he got the job after the cut, and his mission is to defeat his former team.)  He has a wife, Patricia, and two sons, Joseph, 22, and Robert, 14.  Unlike his dad, Robert isn’t athletic at all.  In fact, you might even say that he is a band geek (so is Robert’s best friend Sammy.)  In the movie, Joe almost seems ashamed of his son’s non-athletic accomplishments (by the end though, he proudly displays Robert’s band trophies next to his.)  Joe is an intense man, and halfway through the movie, he suffers a heart attack (he survives.)  He looks like Robert Duvall physically.  The second individual is a player from Austin named Mark Zupan, the most visible person in the movie (at least from the movie’s posters and trailers.)  In 1993, Zupan was a brutal soccer player, but one day he fell asleep in the bed of his best friend Christopher Igoe’s truck.  Chris was driving drunk, and he had an accident when he crashed into a tree.  Mark was thrown into a nearby canal where he held onto a tree for the next 13 ½ hours.  The accident left him paralyzed, but three years later, he joined Team America.  He has a loving girlfriend named Jess, who worked in a morgue at one point.  Zupan has a goatee, tattoos, and a rock star attitude.  He is the one in the movie I could easily see transitioning into an acting career following the end of his tenure as a quad rugby player.  The third individual is Keith Cavill, a Motocross aficionado who is a recent quadriplegic due to a serious spinal cord injury after being thrown from his motorbike.  He tries to adjust to life following the injury, and a chance meeting with Zupan gives him some hope.

Other players on Team America are memorable as well.  Scott Hogsett got married during the making of this movie, but he goes into the most detail about how quadriplegic men still function sexually.  Bob Lujano is a quadruple amputee who has a weird sense of humor (he freaks someone out at one point by stuffing himself in a box.)  Andy Cohn is a bleach blonde who also details what it’s like adjusting to life as a quadriplegic.

It starts out at the 2002 Wheelchair Rugby World Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden, in a game between Team America and Team Canada.  America has dominated the sport for eleven years, but during this time, Canada beat Joe’s former team.  After that, America got its revenge by beating Canada at a Vancouver game for Olympics seeding.  Finally, the climax of the film was the teams’ rivalry during the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece.  All of the games are intense while Ministry’s “Thieves” plays in the background, and they have several MTV-style edits (MTV films is one of the producers, so that’s not surprising.)

One thing that they can all agree on is that they don’t want to be pitied.  Zupan is so insistent about it that he even challenges anyone to a fight if others want it.  None of his friends pity him…in fact, they think that he is the same a**hole (their words) than he has ever been.  I never found myself pitying them, mainly because I am so very un-athletic, and I can respect them for their superior skills on the court.

Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro co-directed Murderball, based on an article Shapiro wrote for Maxim magazine.  I’m very positive that it will be nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar (where it will probably be nominated with two movies I haven’t seen yet, Mad Hot Ballroom and March of the Penguins.)  At the very least, you can watch an entertaining movie that is just as cool to watch as a fictional film.


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