In 1993, Mark Zupan was a respected, ferocious soccer player and, as a couple of his friends recall, “very much an asshole.” Now, following a car accident that left him drifting for 13 and a half hours in a freezing river, he’s a quadriplegic. He’s also a respected, ferocious quad rugby player and still, according to his friends, an “asshole.”
In the rowdy and inspiring Murderball, Zupan is, quite frankly, mesmerizing. The star of his own movie in his mind, he’s more than ready to take up the central spot in Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s documentary. Though the film offers other perspectives on the sport — including self-loving scene-stealer Joe Soares, onetime U.S. star, now coach for Team Canada — Zupan’s appearances on screen suck up energy and spit it back at you. The film begins as he gears up for his day: close shots reveal his tattoos and muscled torso, as well as details of his dressing, strapping, and wheeling. It’s a study of deliberation and routine, Zupan’s resolve reflected in his practiced tough guy’s face. You can see why Eminem recently let slip he’d like to play Zupan in the feature film version of this story (Zupan’s response to the news was appropriately nonplussed: “It was kinda weird. When you hear something like that you’re like, ‘Where am I? Who is this person and what is going on?'” And really, he can play himself, like Eminem did.)
Following Zupan’s introduction, the documentary launches into quad rugby and all rhythms change. The shots come fast, the edits faster. It’s a raucous, loud, slamming sport, where guys in tricked-out wheelchairs bash and race and crash, determined to make themselves known. The sport combines elements of rugby, basketball, football, and roller and demolition derbies, as players and pit crews ensure that hard hits — so desirable, so implosive — have consequences. One player jokingly describes the goal as, “Basically, kill the man with the ball.”
Conceived in Canada as “murderball” (then renamed wheelchair or quad rugby, with an eye to marketing), the sport is now organized into increasingly popular international competitions. This film begins at the World Championship in Sweden 2002, and more or less closes at the Paralympics in Athens, 2004. The players talk trash, share sex stories (“The more pitiful I am, the more women like me”), support one another. They see themselves as gladiators, and Rubin’s innovative camerawork suggests why, alternating between long shots of the arena (bodies and chairs crashing into each other, barreling down the court, scoring and spinning) and close, “wheelchair cam” shots that emphasize the intimacy of all this velocity and aggression. This intimacy operates on several levels, too: the players share pains and emotions, hits and scrapes. They also share ambitions. And they play fiercely, beautifully, devotedly.
Inspired by an article Shapiro wrote for Maxim magazine, the movie is organized to highlight three interrelated storylines, each revealing a different experience of the sport, of being in w wheelchair, of finding peace. Zupan’s background emerges slowly. He was injured when his best friend Chris Igoe, unaware that Zupan had fallen asleep in the back of his truck, drove off the road and Zupan fell into a canal. Incredibly, he stayed afloat all night, until help finally arrived. Three years later, he was playing rugby. Passionate, devoted, and supported by his girlfriend, Zupan has found a sense of order and focus in the sport.
Similarly committed, Soares survived polio 43 years ago. Now he channels his frustration at the U.S. team (who cut him as he began to slow down in middle age) into his rather colorful, certainly vehement coaching of the Canadians. The U.S. players don’t forgive what they see as betrayal: “If Joe was on the side of the road on fire,” announces Zupan, “I wouldn’t piss on him to put it out.” Grrr. The rage is good for the game; it also provides Murderball with a neat enough structure, opponents with sincere stakes they articulate repeatedly. Joe’s stakes escalate considerably when, during the course of filming, he had a heart attack and underwent surgery (which he invited his friends, Rubin and Shapiro, to shoot). He survives this crisis as well, helped is wife and child, resolved to make it to the Paralympics.
A third perspective is embodied by Keith Cavill, injured in a motocross accident just three years ago. As the other players are at ease in their chairs and with rugby when you meet them, Keith offers an introduction, smartly edited in only after you’ve come to believe you have it down, once you believe you understand what’s at issue. “All his life,” his mother smiles, “He’s been on wheels.” He’ll cope, but it will take time. “I’m in a wheelchair. This sucks,” he tells his family, trying to outfit their home to accommodate his changed abilities.
Keith’s story makes you think again, not just about quad rugby as a sport, but as a means to regain a self that’s been lost. He finds in it a way to channel his energy and depression, to recover his love of risk and speed. As if to underline this point, the film ends with the players meeting a group of injured Iraq War veterans. The community of quads — and potential rugby players — is not limited to those who have suffered illness or freak accidents. Instead, this moment suggests, war (and the improved technologies that allow troops to survive devastating wounds) extends the community. It’s a smart, sensitive coda for this saga of survival. Acknowledging loss, it shows hope.