Created in 1978, Murderball is a game for exclusive players only. A large majority of the adult world will never be able to play it or experience what it’s like to play it. The point of the game is to take the ball past members of the other team and carry it over the goal line between the posts. The challenge is that you can’t move your legs and you have limited grip with your hands. Murderball is the sport for quadriplegics who are tired of being treated like fine china or offered wheelchair basketball. Considering most of the men that play Murderball got the way they are by participating in high adrenaline, testosterone activities, it’s no surprise they still crave a dangerous sport. Murderball, AKA: wheelchair rugby, is not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. The players are not fragile; they’re athletes.
By this point, forget this is a documentary; it’s a sports movie. What started as a magazine article for Maxim, the documentary Murderball is truly amazing, beautifully shot, full of fantastic editing, graceful transitions and completely reframes the picture of what it is to be in a wheelchair. The film follows the undefeated USA Paralympics Wheelchair Rugby Team as they take on twelve other countries, most importantly, rival team Canada, whose coach, Joe Soares, is an ex-team USA player. The tension when USA and Canada face one another in competition is totally real and stings with anger, and yes, you’ll want to cover the kids ears AND send them out of the room.
Just to remind you, most movies involving a person or “victim” in a wheelchair make the focus of dramatic tension the moment when that person falls out of the chair. They may flop, or yell for help, or crawl, panting, on their elbows in search of someone else to pick them up. A personal love for Passion Fish notwithstanding, these are the key climaxes of films involving wheelchairs. Has it never occurred to filmmakers that after rehab disabled individuals get themselves in and out of bed on their own every day? They take showers, they get themselves into the bathroom, they get in and out of the driver’s seat of their cars on a regular basis. Isn’t it an insult to depict wheelchair bound individuals as helpless? Through Murderball we let go of our preconceived notions as we watch USA’s Mark Zupan, Scott Hogsett, and Andy Cohn cream players on other teams, slamming into their specialized Mad Max-like wheelchairs and basically playing bumper cars with their strapped in bodies.
The film is shot in both a sensitive and aggressive fashion, complete with just as varied range of soundtrack. It is full of enough humor, practical jokes, anger, and reality of life to strike a perfect symmetry between intrigue and emotion to draw viewers in. As documentaries go, Murderball is as fresh and powerful as Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. In one scene in particular, one of the players who had lost his legs and his arms up to the elbows from a childhood blood disease speaks to a group of children. He tells them that in life “it’s not what you have, but what you do with what you have.” It takes a very strong person to make such a powerful statement knowing what he has dealt with all his life. The following scene is a very basic, quiet shot of the same handless, wheelchair bound man unlocking the door to his house, getting out a cup, and pouring himself something to drink. An intense juxtaposition to see him in control and slamming into others and then just making due when it comes to the simple things most of us take for granted. Likewise, the opening shot is of the “star” Mark Zupan changing out of his jeans and into his athletic shorts. A simple task, but with no music in the background and watching his struggle, it sets the tone of his life before we see him as a powerhouse and aggressive competitor.
The reason it translates so well and doesn’t come across as a stuffy documentary is because of one word: balance. Not only do we see these men slamming into other players, but also we watch as they go to rehab facilities and show newly injured patients something they’ve never heard of. They cuss at Canada’s coach, cutting him down, and then they go and teach the United States’ disabled Iraq veteran’s about Murderball and give them something to look forward to. They have a leg-less guy hide under a box and then call one of the female desk clerks for the hotel to their room to “help” them lift the heavy box only to scare her and get a laugh out of the evening. These are just a couple of guys doing what they now know to be normal. Zupan even refers to his friend, Chris Igoe (who was the driver of the truck Zupan was thrown out of) the Quadfather. If anything they see life as something in need of a few good slamming-intos just to make sure you’re using all the life you were given. If more movies, even fictional, were made this way, with balance and honesty, we wouldn’t be stuck with a choice between 2 Fast 2 Furious or Sweet Home Alabama. Kudos to Rubin and Shapiro for choosing to really see life and film it in a different way.
If Murderball wasn’t a good enough film, the extras on the disc complete the package and even leave the case bulging at the seams. For starters, there are two great commentaries, one featuring Mark Zupan, with Scott Hogsett, and Andy Cohn (absolutely wonderful) and a second commentary track with filmmakers Jeff Mandel, Dana Adam Shapiro, and Henry Alex Ruben (a little less on the gusto, but still good). There’s never a complaint from this corner if I get a commentary, but two? Come on guys, now I’m blushing.
The next couple of special features are “Murderball: Behind the Game,” a close to an hour long “CNN Larry King Live Interview” (including Keith from the film as part of the team), and a “Joe Soares Update Interview.” The interview is fairly short and is where Joe pretty much unsuccessfully tries to drag himself out of the jerk hole he spent the whole movie digging into. The disc also covers the deleted scenes, trailers, and a New York City Premiere of the film where the volume is too quiet and you don’t know what’s going on.
Finally, if you like Jackass the show and Jackass the movie then you will love, love, love “Jackass Presents: Murderball featuring Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O.” These guys hold nothing back and are a perfect match for the high-testosterone, pain-inflicting men of Murderball. If you want to see them take turns sending wheelchairs off tabletops in a bar, building plywood ramps to jump over Steve-O and into the pool, or the good clean fun of steering your wheelchair, and therefore your eye, into the balled up fist of someone else to see who will get the biggest black eye, then you’re in the right place. This feature is one of the best and funniest out there and fits perfectly with the tone of the film.
As I said before, the key factor with the film is balance. The same is true for the extras. Not only do you get the really funny, lighter side of life material, but also you see the interview with Larry King and the other more serious sides. It’s films and special features like Murderball that raise the bar and make other movies have to try that much harder to keep up.