Murderball begins with sobering close-ups of Mark
Zupan, quadriplegic and wheelchair rugby warrior, methodically
girding himself: In brief interview snippets, he matter-of-factly
lays out his condition, how he got this way, and then goes about
the business of kicking ass. Other interviewees are treated similarly,
and before long you’re in the thick of a bunch of maniacs
launching themselves at each other’s wheelchairs, ostensibly
trying to gain possession of the ball and score, but seemingly trying
to lay as much waste to each other as possible. “Transcends
wheelchairs early,” I scribbled down; “it’s a
sports movie.” No Triumph Of The Spirit here,
just a tribute to the kind of dedication that leads to the impressive
sight of a dozen men banging on the sides of their chairs and howling
as loud as any football team about to crush the enemy.
But Murderball, despite its many merits, turns out to
be unable to focus on any one thing, be it a unique breed of sports
obsessive or otherwise. Instead, the movie is stitched together
out of dozens of three- or four-minute snippets, flitting back and
forth from diverse topics and subjects, never settling on one. It’s
a movie without focus, and while it remains consistently engaging,
it could’ve stood to settle on just a few people or topics
to follow in depth. Instead, we learn about everything from sexual
rehab (a video demonstrating just how the newly disabled can engage
in intercourse) to the intricacies of US-Canadian paralympic rivalries
(which unfold with a degree of intensity appropriate seemingly only
to “South Park”), but none of it in detail.
At its best, Murderball is a jock documentary, a refreshingly
blunt and macho film for a documentary niche market normally devoted
to celebrating only cute children and society’s outsiders.
Rubin and Shapiro avoid keeping
the wheelchairs in the frame unless they’re making a point.
All head-on interviews are from the chest up, and they avoid perfectly
the problem of using their quadriplegic status as a crutch for sympathy
or excuse for lazy filmmaking. Obviously whittled down from hundreds
of hours of footage, Murderball rarely lacks for an appropriate
shot. But there’s too much here, not too little.
Take Keith, whom we meet early on as a newly
crippled quadriplegic. Bitter and taciturn in rehab, he returns
home to dolefully examine the beloved motocross bike that led to
his accident. Then Keith simply disappears from the film until the
very end, when champion Zupan visits the hospital and gives a recruitment
talk for wheelchair rugby. Keith’s eyes light up, he tries
Zupan’s chair, and a new jock is born. Later, Zupan mentions
Keith in a press conference as an example of the benefits of the
sport. End of story. Using Keith as a mere prop for the other characters
seems both reductive and plentifully unnecessary: Keith deserved
either his own story or nothing at all.
While Murderball has too much in it, it’s never
boring. Between the constant, adrenalizing games, there’s
a bracing matter-of-factness to the quadriplegics, saving the film
from potential bathos at every time. Shapiro and Rubin attempt a
few ill-advised poetic touches (animating one player’s dream
of flying over the moon, able-bodied), but it doesn’t suit
them. Their métier—and the players’—is
action. Which makes the finale even more frustrating: After spending
a whole movie skirting Triumph Of The Spirit clichés,
Shapiro and Rubin show the climactic game in sentimental slow-mo,
complete with the Polyphonic Spree on the soundtrack.
(They do better when sticking with the grimly pulverizing tunes
of Ministry.) Up until that point, though, Murderball
is a consistently entertaining—if too schizoid—look
at a fascinating subculture.