This review was updated on Feb. 3, 2005.
Powered by a fantastic subject and real-life characters who would be difficult to invent, “Murderball” is a blast and a half — as entertaining as mainstream American docus get. Not simply profiling but burrowing into the lives of members of the U.S. Paralympics quadriplegic rugby team over a two-year-plus period, Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s propulsive and superbly crafted pic successfully juggles macho drive, intense emotions and classic sports movie bravado. Even as the B.O. bar continues to rise for nonfiction, ThinkFilm should anticipate smash results in theaters and vid, with a high-gear launch from the Sundance doc competish.
The brilliance of the docu is the opening, which sets the tone by not showing any pity toward guys rendered quadriplegic (term may not be used here in its traditional sense in every case) in their prime by life’s hazards. To the contrary: These rugby fanatics are shown as downright intimidating, foul-mouthed and ultra-competitive.
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Unsurprisingly, Canada, land of hockey, developed the sport, in which rugby rules are adapted to an indoor court and wheelchairs regularly clash, sending players flying every which way.
The central rivalry is suitably between Yanks and Canucks, only with a dramatic twist. Joe Soares, once Team USA’s leader and then cut from the squad, has joined Team Canada as coach. He’s a man on a vengeful mission, but he must deal with the likes of U.S. star Mark Zupan, a Type A sort who’s not alone in expressing his contempt for Soares’ actions. (The term “Benedict Arnold” is used more than once for Soares.)
At the 15-minute mark , Soares’ fifth-seeded Canadians upset the Yanks in the world championship final in Gothenburg, Sweden — a final they’ve never lost in 11 competitions.
Vet documaker Rubin (“Who Is Henry Jaglom?”) and journalist-author Shapiro have seamlessly combined their respective skills for filmmaking and storytelling to interweave at least three major storylines while relaying the human and physical realities faced by these men of rugby.
In one thread, Soares, who displays almost manic intensity while coaching, is shown to have a testy relationship with his non-athletic son Robert, who can never seem to do well enough in his father’s eyes.
Zupan, from Austin, has a loving relationship with g.f. Jess. Their story leads to commentary on intriguing reasons why some women are particularly attracted to quadriplegic men — plus a lusty montage (complete with a physician’s self-made video) on quad sex.
But as with so much about “Murderball,” this is only the start of Zupan’s tale, which stretches back to a high school friendship with Christopher Igoe, whose drunk driving caused the accident that threw Zupan into a canal and paralyzed his lower body. They virtually cut off all contact, Igoe likely wracked with guilt and Zupan boiling with anger even as he went through years of therapy.
With the approach of the 2004 Paralympics in Athens (held alongside the Olympics), Igoe decides to come and cheer on Zupan’s team, and though their reunion is kept out of reach of microphones, it may well be that the film crew helped the meeting happen.
Yet the meeting does not feel manipulated for the film, a problem that has cropped up in several recent docs. Besides, the best stuff here is purely captured by the constantly roving lens: Soares’ heart attack; his recovery, which humanizes him and leads to a touching scene with son Robert; and the thrilling and surprising rematch between the U.S. and Canada in Athens.
Emotions rise to such a pitch that it would be easy to ignore what amounts to an extraordinary technical accomplishment. Specially rigged cameras on the players’ chairs fully capture the game’s violence and smashmouth attitude, and the labors of editor Geoffrey Richman and co-editor Conor O’Neill are almost too exhausting to contemplate.
A lovely, spare animated scene (by artists Damon Ciarelli and David Egan) depicting U.S. teammate Bob Luiano’s dream of flying sends “Murderball” into the zone of inner consciousness.