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MURDERBALL

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Mark Zupan, Joe Soares, Keith Cavill, Scott Hogsett, Andy Cohn, Bob Lujano
Directors: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
Audio: English Dolby Digital surround 5.1 or stereo 2.0
Subtitles: None
Video: Color, widescreen
Studio: THINKfilm
Features: Two commentaries, Larry King interview, Jackass segment, Murderball: Behind the Game featurette, Joe Soares interview, deleted scenes, New York premiere, web-link, trailers
Length: 86 minutes
Release Date: November 29, 2005

"I've gone up to people and start talking sh*t...and I go, what, you're not going to hit a kid in a chair?  F**king hit me.  I'll hit you back!"

Film ***

What is Murderball?  Is it a feel-good sport documentary about how foul-mouthed yet demonstrably passionate young men refuse to allow their physical handicaps define their goal (of knocking each other senseless out of their wheelchairs)?  Is it an inspirational tale about optimistic quadriplegics who find the means to surmount their disabilities in their drive to excel (at crashing into each other at breakneck speeds)?  Is it some mutated form of full-contact sport involving crushing metal parts and wildly flailing body parts?

Why, yes it is.  To all of the above.  If this offends any politically-oriented readers among us, need I remind you that the name of this documentary and its sport is murderball, so you'll get no sympathy from me (and doubtless none from the sport's fanatic athletes, either).  Check out Winged Migration or March of the Penguins instead; those are the family-friendly documentaries for you!

Quadriplegic rugby was developed in Canada, where it affectionately earned the nickname "Murderball."  That's right, blame Canada!  But before you start wondering how a quadriplegic is capable of playing a full-contact sport, the documentary quickly clarifies that being a quadriplegic simply means impairment, not necessarily total paralysis, of the four limbs.  The jocks who participate in quad rugby are quite talented at this frequently rather violent sport.  They play without helmets, either, mind you.

Indeed, Murderball's athletes, with their sheer courage and gusto, make mere lowlifes such as myself appear like gutless wimps whenever we whine over a simple paper cut.

Nevertheless, these players all fervidly demand to be treated like ordinary guys.  Okay, so as one ordinary guy to a bunch of other guys, I have to say, you're all nuts!  Then again, most sport fanatics are, so what else is new?  Auto freaks like to lavish excessive amounts of time, money, and effort upon their cars.  Is it any more surprising then that the Murderball gang devotes much effort in transforming their wheelchairs into chaotic chariots of doom and destruction?

Actually, to be perfectly honest, quad rugby looks like a lot of fun!  There's just something viscerally satisfying about smashing one's opponent down in a virtual gladiator-style demolition derby.  As one Murderball player describes it, "Basically, it's kill the man with the ball."

Let's look at some of the world-class members of Team USA, long a dominant force in the world of quadriplegic rugby.  There's upbeat but lovable loser Andy Cohn, and there's the lady's man Scott Hogsett.  Don't overlook short-limbed but big-hearted Bob Lujano, survivor of a bad case of childhood meningococcal meningitis.  And no one can possibly ignore the trash-talking, gutter-mouthed Mark Zupan, the goatee guru of Murderball?  Did I mention this scary dude is tattooed, as well?  In a parallel storyline, Murderball also follows the progress of Keith Cavill, a recent quadriplegic with a fascination for anything with wheels.  After one meeting with Zupan and his battering ram of a wheelchair, Keith's eyes literally light up, and we perceive what the future surely will hold in store for him.

And then, there's the villain, Joe Soares, a former U.S. quad rugby champ.  Sadly, this sports legend is now aging and frustrated.  Hardly content with merely fading away, Soares craves ever more glory.  In fact, in betrayal of team and country, Soares has jumped ship to coach Team Canada, and this scheming Benedict Arnold wants nothing better than to crush the spines of his former teammates.  Not just crush, but grind into sawdust.  Maybe run over them a few times, too.  With extreme prejudice.  Hey, what are egomaniacal villains for, after all?  In Murderball, we can practically see Soares foaming at the mouth with steam gushing out of his ears.  Don't go yakking political correctness to this turncoat, or he'll just bite your ear off and spit it out.  The best thing is that Soares is definitely not a caricature but a real person!  We can always use more of these intensely off-kilter yet wildly entertaining sports personalities! 

Despite the bruising gameday personalities, off-court these athletes are fairly decent role models.  Well, maybe Coach Soares still remains about as cuddly as Bill Parcells or Bobby Knight, but all these athletes (Soares included) have their loving and supportive family environments.  Each functions quite well in the daily routines of life, in everything from doing the dishes, hosting barbeque parties, and even driving cars.  And yes, Murderball also addresses the burning question over how a quadriplegic, shall we say, "expresses physical intimacy" with his specific other.

Murderball alternates between glimpses into the personal lives of these men and flashes of spirited training and the actual games themselves.  Being a sports documentary, the film culminates at that golden mecca of sporting events, the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece.  However, the eventual outcome in Athens is actually irrelevant.  Of greater significance is the physical and emotional path that these men have traveled through the course of their unwavering perseverance to arrive in Athens in the first place.  As Robert Browning so eloquently muses, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

At the box office, this film undeservedly tanked, although the reasons are quite obvious.  It's a tough sell.  Suppose, for instance, that I am a typical suburban dad with two young kids.  For some reason, I decide to take them to see a documentary.  I could take my kids to see an R-rated film called Murderball with foul-mouthed, intimidating jocks participating in a violent full-contact sport.  Or, I could take my kids to see fuzzy, cute little baby penguins in The March of the Penguins.  Is this a no-brainer or what?

Okay, suppose I'm an average woman.  I merely notice the word "murder" in the title, and already the discussion's over.  Case closed.  Most women are as likely to voluntarily see this film as most men are to see The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

Okay, suppose I'm just an Average Guy then.  Let's be perfectly frank here, shall we?  Would I choose to see a documentary in the movie theater about quadriplegics, or would I rather see something with obnoxiously loud car chases and CG-aliens invading the world?

The problem is not that Murderball is a bad film.  On the contrary, it is a very decent documentary filled with everything you would expect from a sports documentary, from the heartbreak of defeat to the catharsis of triumph and redemption.  Even better, the stories behind the players are ultimately more involving than the perfunctory snippets shown of the games themselves.  But, the name "Murderball" conjures up images of a bad roller derby movie, which conjures up images of really bad 70's movies with horrendously bad disco music.  So, the film has serious marketing issues, the least of which is its consumer-unfriendly title, and Murderball's lack of an adequately informed publicity campaign consequently sealed its fate at the box office. 

Then again, who cares?  Certainly not the Zubans and Soares of this film.  They want respect, not insincere sympathy and bleeding hearts.  This film isn't some happy family Merrily Rolling Along sing-along, it's Murderball!  So box office be damned, you have to respect these athletes for sticking to their principles!  Go see them in this film because you're genuinely interested; otherwise, stick with the fluffy penguins.

Video ***

Murderball has a mildly grainy appearance but is otherwise offered in a clean and pristine print.  Lighting is unremarkable, so the images are not always "cinematic" in appearance, but that is par for most documentaries.

Audio ***

You might assume that a film such as this one would have subtitles.  Sorry, guess again.  But I digress.

Like most documentaries, Murderball uses mostly live sound, so the echoes and background noise are normal.  Dialogue is sometimes distorted or not clearly audible, but such befits the usual cacophonic setting of any sports arena.  Audio options are for Dolby Digital surround 5.1 or stereo 2.0.

Features ***

There are two commentary tracks.  One is provided by producer Jeff Mandel and directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro.  It is cordial, informative, and respectfully polite.  Was that a stifled yawn there?  Okay, perhaps the player commentary, with Mark Zupan, Scott Hogsett, and Andy Cohn will be more your cup of tea.  It is wickedly rude, off-the-wall, and definitely lewd.  It's frankly also a lot more fun.

Next is a Larry King interview (39 min.) with Mark Zupan, Scott Hogsett, Andy Cohn, Keith Cavill, and Bob Lujano.  The quad rugby players briefly discuss their accidents and how quad rugby has helped them and changed their lives.  The interview also offers a question-and-answer session at the end with telephone call-ins.  This is a solid interview session, although most of what is here can already be found in the documentary itself.

Not so for the Jackass interview.  This segment is twenty-one minutes of shocking depravity, pure immorality, and crude vulgarity.  In other words, it should appeal perfectly to the MTV generation (after all, Jackass is one of the music channel's more popular shows).  What do we get here?  Well, there are black-eye punches being thrown, cattle prod jousting in wheelchairs, and wheelchairs (with occupants!) being launched from raised stages and over swimming pools.  Oh, did I forget to mention the ex-marine male exotic dancer?  Throw another cattle prod into the scene there and, well, you get the picture.  For audience members who prefer the fairer sex, there are chicks slipping each other the tongue and flashing the camera and the Murderball gang, too.  Somewhere among all this sheer anarchy, there are clips from the documentary as well as informal chats with the likes of Zupan and Hogsett.

Really, parents would have heart attacks knowing that their "little angels" are watching all this carnality and highly digging it.  My advice?  Parents, cover your eyes and leave the room!  Kids, you can watch the mayhem, although you'll have to accept MTV's censoring of some of the saucier details or more colorful language.

A Joe Soares interview (10 min.) provides the gruff ex-champ an opportunity to address some frequently asked questions, including why he wanted to coach the Canadians.  Blame Canada.  Soares also gives an update into his life and career after Murderball.  He's really not that bad a guy.  Really.  You believe me, right?

The featurette Murderball: Behind the Game (18 min.) offers more interviews with the participants from the film, including Joe Soares and Mark Zupan.  We learn about events which have transpired since the release of Murderball, although this featurette essentially repeats information gleamed elsewhere from the documentary or the other bonus features.

There are seven minutes of deleted scenes.  These are comprised of a food fight, a softball game, a baking scene, a wheelchair sprint by Joe Soares, a weird frog scene, and a really surreal doo wop session with dancing nurses.

Lastly, in a quick glimpse at the film's New York premiere (2 min.), we get to see Keith's reaction after receiving his coveted quad rugby chair.  There are also trailers for The Aristocrats and Born into Brothels and a web-link for THINK MTV Disability Awareness.

Summary:

What a blast!  Murderball is not for everyone, but it is definitely a crowd-pleaser.  Let's hear it for fewer documentaries about dirty politics already and more about dirty sports players!

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