Movies We Love: Murderball


Murderball (2005)

We’re not going for a hug. We’re going for a f*cking gold medal.


Murderball is the story of the U.S. Paralympics Rugby Team, also known as Wheelchair Rugby, also known as Murderball. This documentary follows the U.S. gearing up for the 2004 games after a crushing defeat to their rivals, Canada, in the previous world tournament. Teammates Mark Zupan, Scott Hogsett, Bob Lujano and Andy Cohn are the main focus on the U.S. team, whereas Canada coach/former U.S. gold medalist Joe Soares is the movie’s “antagonist.” Along the way, Zupan reunites with the man that put him in a wheelchair, Joe deals with some health problems, and newly paralyzed Keith Cavill learns how to cope with his new life situation.

Why We Love It

Don’t read that synopsis and think that Murderball is some touchy-feely documentary to make you feel sorry for those people in wheelchairs. This is a sports movie of the highest order, and the film never lets you feel sorry for its subjects. The rugby matches are exciting, the sport itself is cool as hell, and these paraplegics come off more like gladiators than they do like a bunch of Terry Schiavos.

It all starts with Mark Zupan. Most of the people in the film refer to him as “intimidating” and call him an “asshole,” because he’s no different than any other elite jock, except he’s in a wheelchair.* He has tattoos, a fierce chin beard, talks some mean trash, and hits HARD. Zupan used to be a soccer player and he’s still in incredible shape. Zupan is the team captain and leader of the U.S. Paralympic team, and carries himself with an amazing cocky swagger.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Joe Soares is everything Zupan is, and like all great sports movie characters, he carries around a giant chip on his shoulder. The captain of the U.S. team before Zupan, Soares was let go against his will, so instead of sticking around and coaching, he moved to Canada and coached their rugby team with one goal: beat the U.S. Joe is a loud-mouthed, arrogant competitor. Being diagnosed with polio very early in life meant that Joe was in a wheelchair from the beginning. That didn’t stop him from becoming one of the greatest chair-bound athlete’s ever (in addition to rugby, Soares was also a world-class wheelchair tennis player). Soares is one of the great sports movie anti-heroes. He cares so much about his team that at times he even neglects his own son. A heart attack midway through the film makes him see things through a different light, so there’s also a nice story of redemption within Murderball. Don’t be fooled though, Soares is still a competitor, and to this day he and Zupan still don’t like each other.

Simply put, Murderball is one of the 10 greatest documentaries and one of the 10 greatest sports movies I’ve ever seen. Not bad considering directors Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin had never made a feature-length documentary before. Rubin had worked on the second unit on such movies as Cop Land and Girl, Interrupted and Shapiro was a writer and editor at Spin Magazine. Amazing accomplishment. In addition to putting together a solid 90-minute documentary from what I can only assume is several hundred hours of footage, they also put a stamp on the film to make it their own. Most notably, the animation effects used to enhance some portions of the film are very effective. One scene where Bob Lujano describes a dream where he flies out his window and grows legs and arms is so melancholy that it makes my blubbery ass cry every single time (gettin’ misty-eyed just thinking about it).

There’s also the humor in Murderball that sets it apart. Anything that Scott Hogsett says is dripping with horniness. Zupan is one of those lovable a-holes we all know (probably why he hangs out with the “Jackass” guys so much). Andy Cohn is an understated dude who is subtly funny. Bob Lujano gets the funniest moment in the film where the players hide him in an overturned box then call in some ladies to flip it over. There’s lots of swearing and talk about sex (which paraplegics can definitely have, by the way), loads of taunting and boyish rowdiness, and oodles of R-rated material for your viewing pleasure. A rugby player goes into vivid detail about how he performs oral sex one moment, while in the next the directors show part of a “how-to” sex tape geared towards paralyzed individuals.

Moment We Fell In Love

The paraplegic sex-tape comes close, but I’d have to say the moment I fell for this film was when they introduced Keith. Keith Cavill was a motocross rider who had a accident and became paralyzed. The filmmakers correlate Keith’s learning how to cope with his new circumstances and adjusting to life with the events surrounding the U.S. and Canadian teams. This all comes full circle when Keith meets Zupan in a really funny and understated scene when Keith gets to try Zupan’s Murderball chariot.

There are so many moments to love: The three Canada/U.S. matches are filmed great; the training montages are fun; Zupan’s scene in the pool with his girlfriend is touching; Zupan’s high school reunion is interesting; Hogsett’s flirting scenes are hilarious; Bob Lujano’s daily routine is mesmerizing; Joe and Robert’s (his son) relationship has real weight and it climaxes with a touching scene at Robert’s orchestra concert; and the moment where Keith says “this is all just sinking in” is shattering.

Final Thoughts

Sports movie. Documentary. Comedy. Murderball offers something for everyone and continues to get better each time I see it. If you haven’t seen this film (and it’s likely that you haven’t) please give this movie a shot. Many people don’t like to be “guilt-tripped” by movies about the less fortunate, but Murderball is not that. It tells the story of courageous people–but they aren’t courageous because they’ve overcome odds to do some physical things many doubted. They’re courageous because they’re fearless competitors who fight for their countries, just like the skilled athletes we watch compete everyday.

* In 2006, when I was a DJ at my college radio station, I did an interview and hung out with Mark Zupan for a few hours. He truly is just like you see him in the film. To kill some time (Zupan had to speak after the film played, so we hung out during the movie), we played Trivial Pursuit 90’s Edition. When he left I got his autograph on a beach volleyball (which was being used during a promotion we were doing) and he wrote “Trivial Pursuit fucking blows. –Mark Zupan” and drew a middle finger. This ball was found by my manager’s 8 year-old daughter the next day. Crap.

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Josh is a multi-tasker. He's been a cubicle monkey for the last few years, a veteran stage actor of over 10 years, a sometimes commercial actor, occasional writer of articles, a once-legend in the realm of podcastery, purveyor of chuckles in his homecity of Chicago as he has trained with the world renown iO (Improv Olympic) and Second City Conservatory and performed with both theaters, and can be seen doing a thing that actor's do on the website of his online sitcom, LackingDirection.com. Josh also likes to tackle the beef of his bio with one run-on sentence, because it befits his train-of-thought.

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