Nominated for an Oscar in 2006, Murderball is the story of the United States quad rugby team as they train towards the 2004 Athens Olympics. It centres predominantly around the charismatic team spokesman Mark Zupan, a 28 year old quadriplegic who found himself in a wheelchair at the age of 19 following a car accident.
Rather than dwell too much on the fates that befell the players, co-directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro spend much of the run time celebrating the sport and the options available to those who under normal circumstances could easily lose hope and give up. Murderball is a genuinely exciting (and brutal) full contact sport and offers a great outlet for those dealt a cruel blow in life.
Whilst Mark Zupan, or just Zupan as he is known, is the star of the show, the bitter rivalry with Team Canada in the run up to the Olympics is given centre stage throughout with every warm up event they attend to decide who will be #1 seed heading into the games covered. With Team Canada’s head coach being the USA’s finest ever murderball player from years gone by, Joe Soares, the rivalry is incredibly bitter and the players are far from buddies, particularly Zupan and Soares who are always at each other’s throats. It is these moments that keep the documentary honest as outside of hearing their back stories, we are never expected to feel sorry for the players but rather to see that they are as normal as everyone else.
With a segue into the life of a recently paralysed motocross rider, the different stages of becoming a quadriplegic are explored, as is the hope that the option of one day strapping into an armoured chair for a game of murderball brings. With Zupan as spokesman you feel that murderball is a sport that can only grow as more people become aware of it.
What makes Murderball so good are the rugby scenes themselves. With Joe Soares having defected to Team Canada following being cut from the team after winning gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he was able to supply them with the entire Team USA playbook and close the gap significantly on the once utterly dominant Americans. With games edited together in short sequences with the team scores ticking up in the corner of the screen it is nail biting to see who will win each confrontation and ultimately who will take Olympic gold.
Murderball is a massive triumph and ticks every documentary box. It takes a little known sport and presents it in such a way that it is exciting and also presents the players with exactly the right mix of empathy and respect for being at the top of what is a highly competitive sport worldwide. With Zupan it has an instant star but with Soares as the built in villain of the piece and plenty of interesting supporting team mates, the sport of quad rugby could not seem more exciting and will be a must see at the upcoming 2012 London Paralympics.