Murderball (documentary)

Contrary to common belief, being quadriplegic doesn’t mean being unable to move your arms and legs at all. There are varying degrees of it: Quadriplegic simply means having limited mobility in all four limbs (and, yes, sometimes no mobility at all).

That distinction is important when you consider the documentary “Murderball” and its subject, the sport of quad rugby, in which teams of quadriplegic men in steel-reinforced wheelchairs play rugby on an indoor court as violently and ardently as their able-bodied counterparts out on the grass. The players with some arm mobility handle the passing, while those with less movement can block and provide defense. Everyone is given a ranking from 0.5 to 3.5 to match his upper-body mobility, and a team can only have a total of 8 points on the court at any given time. Quad rugby — colloquially known as murderball — is not for sissies, nor for people who think quadriplegics can’t do anything.

If ever a movie could make you realize how much you don’t appreciate your limbs, it’s this one, a terrifically inspiring and entertaining film about men who, despite having limited mobility in all four limbs, could, any one of them, kick my butt. Meet Mark Zupan, who became paralyzed when he fell asleep drunk in the back of a buddy’s pickup truck — which the buddy then wrecked, sending Mark sailing into a canal, where he held onto a branch for 13 hours before being discovered. Meet Hogsett, who became a quad after a fistfight in which he was punched in the spine and sent over a balcony railing. Meet Keith, paralyzed after a motocross accident. Meet Bob, who had a type of meningitis when he was 9 years old that resulted not just in paralyzation but in his legs and forearms actually being removed. You admire these guys just for continuing to live, let alone for strapping themselves into armored chairs and playing rugby.

Directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro follow the U.S. quad rugby team from the 2002 World Championship in Sweden to the 2004 Paralympics Games in Athens. Team Canada defeats Team USA in Sweden, a loss made all the more bitter by the fact that Canada is now coached by former Team USA player Joe Soares, whose rugby skills slipped as he got older, leading him to be cut from the team. Much of Team USA, particularly Zupan, considers Joe a traitor, while Joe is still angry at having been dropped from the U.S. team in the first place. And thus a heated rivalry for the Gold Medal in Athens is established.

The film has all the makings of an excellent sports movie, including last-second victories and personal triumphs, but it refuses to settle for excellence in that genre alone. Instead, Rubin and Shapiro focus on the players, letting them speak frankly about their injuries and limitations while observing them both in daily life and in their preparations for the Games.

Every quad in the film refuses to be pitied, an attitude that carries over with a vengeance onto the rugby court. Snidely dismissing the common mistake of believing the Paralympics are the same thing as the Special Olympics, Hotsett snorts, “We’re not going for a hug, we’re going for a f****** Gold Medal.” Elsewhere, Zupan’s life-long friends point out that Zupan’s being a hotheaded jerk has nothing to do with the accident. “He’s always been an a**hole,” one of them says.

Attention is paid to Canada’s Joe Soares, too. Paralyzed since a childhood bout with polio, Joe is now a strict father with a 10-year-old son whom he can’t quite relate to. Joe’s sudden heart attack halfway through the film brings new depth to the story, and we are surprised to realize in Athens that we can’t decide whom to root for, Team USA or Team Canada.

No one ever believes me when I say this, but “Murderball,” a documentary, is every bit as exciting, funny, heartwarming and uplifting as any Hollywood sports movie. Rubin and Shaprio, both mostly inexperienced in documentary filmmaking, had the right idea to film everything and let their instincts guide them afterward on what to keep. What’s left is a movie that entertains as much as it enlightens, a genuine testament to the strength of the human will.

(By the way, that question you’ve been wanting to ask? About whether quadriplegics can have sex? The answer is YES. Thank you, “Murderball.” Thank you indeed.)

A (1 hr., 25 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some sexual discussion.)