Friday, February 09, 2007

Film Review #81: Murderball
Directors: Dana Adam Shapiro & Henry-Alex Rubin
Cast: Mark Zupan, Joe Soares, Keith Cavill

This marvelous sports film opens with what its creators call “the Clark Kent moment.” First seen sitting in a wheelchair, Mark Zupan is changing into shorts and a tee-shirt. Laboriously, he eases one leg at a time from his trousers. Then the left leg emerges, encased from knee to ankle in Maori-style tattoo. The heavy, swirling lines recall an ancient warrior’s armor. Then the sweatshirt comes off, his bare arms and torso bulging. Another tattoo drapes around one shoulder like a cape. Cut to Zupan’s garage workshop. There, the Austin civil engineer who wears a red buzz-cut and goatee mounts the wheels on his other wheelchair. These are heavy, solid discs that resemble bronze gladiator shields. When that garage door rises above Zupan, ready to roll, for just a flash you see the Man of Steel darting out of his phone booth.

Zupan broke his neck at 18 after falling asleep in the bed of his best friend’s pick-up truck during some post-soccer celebrating. Unaware he had a rider, the friend headed home and swerved badly, hurling Zupan over a fence into a canal. His neck broken, Zupan clung to a low tree branch for thirteen and a half hours before rescue. Zupan is heading for the 2002 world wheelchair rugby championships in Sweden when this film opens, captain of the US all-stars team. Later he says of his friend, “He’s my quad father – he made me.”

First called “murderball” for its full-tilt, full-contact ferocity, quad rugby was developed in Canada in the late 1970s for athletes having damage to all four limbs. The game has four eight-minute quarters. Players intercept the other team by knocking them over. Nobody wears helmets or pads.

Americans began playing in the 90s. When Murderball opens, no one has beaten them in ten years. Canada has the best chance, coached by Joe Soares, who left in a huff when Team USA dropped him after twelve years. On-court, Zupan and others routinely taunt the hair-triggered, hard-driving Soares, calling him “Benedict Arnold.”

Murderball follows this grudge from Sweden through the 2004 Athens Summer Games and highlights Soares, five Team USA members and a new recruit. Dana Adam Shapiro, a former editor at Spin Magazine, went to Sweden to cover that meet for print. He took along award-winning doc-maker Henry-Alex Rubin, and the two went on to co-direct. Rubin shot the film mostly at “ass-level,” using wheelchairs the way other film crews use dollies for his two cameras. In one too-brief scene, a camera whizzes inches above the court, strapped beneath a player’s seat.

A year into filming, Zupan met ex-Motocross rider Keith Cavill while visiting New Jersey’s Kessler Rehab Center. He let Cavill sit in his rugby chariot and Cavill’s eyes lit up. Cavill’s dark, tentative early days as a quadriplegic puts flesh on what the others, now so self-possessed, got past.

Shapiro and Rubin’s work shares a quality with films by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. They made Brother’s Keeper (1992) about Madison County’s Ward brothers and the excellent Some Kind of Monster (2004) about the band Metallica. Throughout Murderball, you wonder how these guys got access to such unguarded, perfect moments. Besides the stings of defeat, glorious pranks and slyly joyous grins over success with young women figure prominently here. Player Scott Hogsett relates how once a young nurse giving him a bath “ran and got my mother to see my woody.” A baffled wisp of Camp Fire girl asks player Bob Lujano, “How do you eat your pizza with your elbows?” Charged relationships play out – Zupan and Joe, Joe and his viola-playing son Robert, Zupan and his friend Chris. And the neck and neck scores during crucial final seconds were made in heaven.

Murderball premiered at Sundance and survived in a different movie climate from today’s run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, already underway. Besides awarding four Oscars to Million Dollar Baby in early 2005, the Academy named a Spanish film, The Sea Inside, as best foreign film. Both those movies had paralyzed main characters who fought vehemently to die. Since then, Murderball has traveled to a dozen other countries and opens in French theaters next month, surely stoking Beijing anticipation. You know Zupan and most of his guys were training already.

This review appeared in the 2/8/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, in “Make it Snappy,” a weekly column reviewing films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.