Moments before the Paralypmic Games in Athens, Scott Hogsett, recounts an encounter with a family member who called him a “Special Olympian.” A comment that made him want to rip her head off and spike it. ”We’re not going for a hug” he told her “we’re going for a gold medal.”
A similar attitude is at the heart of Murderball, a fantastic documentary about the growing paralympic sport of Quad Rugby and the men for whom this sport is an obsession.
Imagine hulking, disabled men ramming into each other in Mad Max style wheelchairs. The deafening sound that each crash makes resembling a garbage can thrown off the top of a building to the pavement below.
The athletes in this movie (and, disabled or not, that’s exactly what they are) embody the grit and toughness needed to play a rough and tumble sport like rugby (although their version doesn’t include scrums or tangled legs). Quad players are archetypal rugby players right down to the stereotypically loutish, tough-guy behavior that seems to accompany the game.
The documentary follows the lives of two quad players, Joe Soares and Marc Zupan. Soares is a former paralympic athlete who feels he was snubbed by Team USAwhen he was cut in his last competitive chance to play in a major event. His solution is to coach Team Canada against the Americans which is viewed as a treasonous act by his fellow countrymen in the war of Quad Rugby. Soares’ brashness doesn’t help him win many fans, including his wife and son who often play second fiddle to the sport he is consumed with.
Zupan is clearly the star of the movie. The tattooed, goateed Texan epitomizes the typical rugby quad-athlete. He’s cocky. He starts bar fights. He plays practical jokes on unsuspecting friends. Essentially he’s a jerk whose behavior apparently wasn’t all that different before he was injured. “Marc was an asshole long before he was in that chair,” says one friend.
Zupan refuses sympathy, even from his best friend, who is also the drunk driver responsible for his paralysis. The precarious nature of their friendship is a theme that runs throughout the film. Rather than dealing with the tragedy, their encounters are filled with tense ambiguity that is never fully resolved.
The U.S. and Canadian teams slug it out in three different nail biting thrillers during the movie, with a final match in Athens at the Paralympic Games. But while the bitter rivalry between the U.S. and Canadian teams serve as a plot of sorts, the reality of life after paralysis is the glue of the film. Viewers are placed face to face with the grueling regimen of a quadriplegic’s early recovery alongside the difficulties they have with mundane daily activities—things the able-bodied take for granted. The documentary holds back nothing, even dealing—graphically—with the sex lives of quadriplegics, social faux pas that they endure and the rage they feel after realizing that their lives are changed forever.
This is not the feel good movie of the summer. Many of the sport’s players often come off as obnoxious jerks but by the end of the film they have certainly earned the audience’s respect for their athletic abilit
Ironically, it is the violence and ferocity of rugby that allows these men to work out their anger and enables them to develop a camaraderie unlike any I have ever witnessed. You’d be a fool to even think about feeling sorry for any of them. Unless, of course, you want to get knocked off your high horse by a furious warrior in a rolling chariot of steel.