"Murderball" is further proof that some of the best stories on screen right now take documentary form.
Mark Zupan is one of the quad rugby players featured in "Murderball." (ThinkFilm)
This 88-minute look at quadriplegic rugby players excels in two areas: challenging what you think you know, and showing you something you don't normally see.
Co-directed by Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry-Alex Rubin, the documentary takes its name from the slang term for quadriplegic rugby, a sport taken very seriously by its athletes around the world.
Quad rugby athletes strap themselves into custom-made rides that resemble wrecking chariots more than wheelchairs. They roll onto a regulation basketball court (where quad rugby is played) and try to score on the other team—a goal that requires mercilessly ramming opponents to stop advancement of the ball.
"It's basically kill the man with the ball," says one participant.
The U.S. team has ruled the sport for the past decade, and "Murderball" chronicles the team's efforts to stay on top. Its main challenger is Team Canada, coached by Joe Soares. Soares "defected" to the Canada team after being cut by Team U.S.A.
And that gets into the meat of the story, which is in many respects only tangentially about quad rugby. Its best moments occur off the court, as A-type personality Joe conflicts with his family and former U.S. teammates, like Mark Zupan.
Zupan sports a thick goatee, numerous tattoos, and a menacing on-court attitude. He's joined by other characters more faceted than most you'll find in a big studio offering: Scott Hogsett, Andy Cohn and Bob Lujano, to name a few. All bring distinctive traits to the team and documentary; all are incredibly funny.
The filmmakers devote plenty of time to these characters off the court, showing their girlfriends, practical jokes and histories. These moments are the most poignant.
Punctuating their story is that of Keith Cavill, a young man whose recent spinal cord injury illustrates what the quad rugby players have said: The first couple of years after an accident are the most difficult. Keith struggles to hang on, and when Zupan crosses his path, salvation may be in sight.
"Murderball," which won the Documentary Audience Award at Sundance this year, is being praised for smashing stereotypes. Indeed, one of the results of this project is a louder voice for those with disabilities.
We even see some of this valuable dialogue in the film, when Team U.S.A. players meet with schoolkids.
One of the boys innocently asks Bob Lujano, a quadruple amputee, "How do you eat pizza with your elbows?" Lujano answers without missing a beat.
Some of the players curse frequently, and a couple characters detail their sexual lives—which they say most people are curious about. While some viewers will find these details "too much information," all will have these adult inquiries of "How do you eat pizza with your elbows" answered.
The documentary moves at a brisk pace, delivering impressive camera work and editing. And by the time it's over, you wish there were more.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual content. Reviewer's Note: There are also a few frank snippets from a "Sexuality Reborn" videotape that doctors show spinal cord injury patients.
Co-Directors: Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry-Alex Rubin
Cast: Mark Zupan; Joe Soares; Scott Hogsett; Andy Cohn; and Bob Lujano.
The movie's official Web site is here.