Got to see my first film last night, Murderball, a sports documentary that continues the new sports-you’ve-never-heard-of trend which has included recent films like Spellbound (spelling bees) and Word Wars (Scrabble tournaments).
These films bring you inside a world that you’ll probably never know, and they all end at some sort of national finals that everyone has worked so hard to get to. In the end, the fierce, colorful competitors realizing that there is more to life then just winningthat everyone is a winner.
Formulaic would be an understatement when describing these filmsbut I still love them! I fall for it every time, just like I get caught up in the Knicks every year thinking that *this* year will be different.
Murderball is the story of the rivalry between teams of rowdy, “don’t feel sorry for me,” quadriplegic rugby players who create Mad Max-inspired wheelchairs and slam them into each with such force and speed that NASCAR fans would cringe. All of this carnage in an effort to get a balland two of the wheels on their wheelchairacross the goal.
The story centers around two bitter rivals, Canada and the USA, which are in a dog fight for first place in the world standings that culminate in the 2004 Athens games. Team USA is lead by the goatee and tattoo-wearing, maverick Mark “f-cking hit meI’ll hit you back” Zupan.
Zupan wound up in a wheelchair after passing out drunk in the back of best friend Chris Igoe’s pickup truck. Igoe, also drunk and having no idea Zupan was in the back of the pickup, crashed the car and unknowingly threw Mark into a river where he clung to some branches for half a day before being found.
Team Canada is being coached by Joe Soares, a Robert Duval lookalike, who channels Gene Hackman’s Hoosiers coach to perfection. Soares was the Michael Jordon of the sport, but was cut from the Team USA as he got slower and younger talent came to the came. He bitterly sued to try and get back on the team before leaving to coach team Canada with a singular mission: to beat his former team.
Could you have a better setup then that?!
Directors Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro hit the sports film jackpot with Murderball. The films three nail-biting competitions play out as dramatically as Hoosiers, Miracle, or Rudy, complete with last-second victories, slow motion plays gone horribly wrong, dejected losers, and glorious victors reveling in their national anthem.
Murderball is so well done that when I finally remembered I was watching a documentary I cynically thought “no waythey had to set this up.” It’s a testament to just how great the competition they got on film was that at times you feel like you’re watching some NFL Film on ESPN Classic. I’m sure the filmmakers also made some solid editing choices, leaving out some of the less-exciting matches.
Of course, the human side to Murderball is just as powerfulbut not more so, an important distinction. When the athletes take you through the horrible circumstances that eventually “gave them the opportunity” to play murderball (these guys have a wicked, and wildly politically incorrect, sense of humor) it certainly hits you.
However, even if might wipe a few tears onto your sleeve while fixing your hair (I was just fixing my hair!), sixty seconds later you’re at the edge of your seat cheering for these guys. You feel bad about the accidents, sure, but you never feel pity. In fact, more often then not, you want to be in the game with these guys.
After victories they are out partying, planning practical jokes, getting drunk, singing fight songs and using their various handicaps to pick up hot babes. One funny moment comes when one of the guys explains how he plays it up to get chicks, saying something to the effect of “the more pathetic I am the better it works.” Heck, Zupan’s girlfriend spends half her onscreen time in bikini, tight jeans and belly-shirts. When you combine her model looks with her boyfriend’s edge they look like something from a aspirational Guess commercial.
In Spellbound, you feel bad for the kids being put under such intense pressure and ultimately question if it’s worth it. In “Word Wars”, the Scrabble players are such nerds, with so little perspective on the world, you know they are unhealthy, but you still love them. In fact, one could argue that the Spellbound experience is exactly the type of thing that creates the freak-show contingent in Word Wars.
You never feel like the charactersand they are charactersin Murderball are anything more then a bunch of guys having the time of their lives. They are loving life and milking it for every last drop of fun.
Many of the peopleheck maybe mostyou meet are in such emotional wheelchairs that they don’t have a tenth of the joy in their lives as these guys do. It’s life and life only, go have a kick-ass timethat’s the message you get from this masterfully constructed film.