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Mettled contenders

The brash, spirited athletes of Murderball crash through opponents and stereotypes in the rough and tumble world of quad rugby.

By STEVE PERSALL
Published July 28, 2005


You may cry while watching the quadriplegics in Murderball, but it definitely won't be out of pity. These guys rock when they roll in reinforced wheelchairs that Mad Max would admire, playing a game called quad rugby, rough and with enough tumbles to make fully able people gasp.

Those will be tears of admiration, for "quads" who aren't imprisoned by their condition and for filmmakers bold enough to make their stories zing.

I sobbed throughout a screening of Murderball at the Sarasota Film Festival way back in January and predicted then that it would be the best film of 2005. Seven months and another screening later, that opinion hasn't changed. This is an R-rated movie I wish almost everyone would see, even some children, despite its salty language and brief sexuality. If kids aren't ready for such material yet, don't worry. This radically inspiring movie will be around for a long, long time.

What's so radical? The fact that co-directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro never hint at condescension and never strike a maudlin note. It's a defiant film on all counts, refusing to push those emotional buttons Hollywood has worn down to nubs.

Along the way, Murderball transfers its straightforward attitude to viewers, bringing up subjects that most of us would be too embarrassed or inarticulate to discuss. I'll admit that before this movie, I incorrectly thought that all quadriplegics were like Christopher Reeve, almost entirely immobile. From awareness many questions spring, and Murderball answers them. How do such injuries happen, and why with such diverse results? What can that kind of life be like? Do quads feel they're missing anything? And what about sex or anything that makes life fun?

Any medical documentary could explain all that. The beauty of Murderball is the game and what it means to the dozens of quadriplegics - plus some able friends and lovers - onscreen. Rugby is a chance to remain vital, to compete, bond or develop bitter rivalries. It's played on basketball courts without pads but with a lot of attitude, exemplified by the bitter grudge between Mark Zupan and Joe Soares.

Zupan leads the Team USA all-stars in international competitions. Buzz-cut, goateed and tattooed, he looks like a grunge rocker - only, as he puts it, shorter in his chair. Zupan fell asleep in a friend's pickup truck bed and was thrown into a South Florida canal, snapping his neck. A friend comments that he was a jerk before the accident, so don't blame the wheelchair.

Soares looks more like the school principal who would suspend someone like Zupan. The Tampa resident didn't make the U.S. team roster this time, so he shifted allegiance to Team Canada as head coach. Soares is considered a traitor to his country by Zupan and the U.S. squad. At the very least, he's an abrasive personality who is easy to dislike.

Those conflicting personalities branch into perfectly developed subplots. The driver who caused Zupan's condition, his best friend in high school, had felt so guilty he stayed away. Meanwhile, Zupan's presentation to a therapy ward for new quadriplegics has a strong effect on a patient, Keith Cavill, whose story raises the emotional bar even higher. Soares' relationship - or lack of one - with his young son is fascinating, with a twist midway that would seem phony in a Hollywood feature film.

A second viewing of Murderball shows how expertly Rubin and Shapiro shaped their movie, with narrative precision usually reserved for great authors and unblinking cameras, which are even rarer. During the first viewing, the depth of these personalities, the measure of their lives, was just too powerful to notice the film's technical brilliance. On both counts, Murderball is enough to make movie lovers cheer through their tears.

Murderball

Grade: A

Directors: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro

Cast: Mark Zupan, Joe Soares, Keith Cavill

Rating: R; harsh profanity, sexual content

Running time: 88 min.