Hell on wheels

New quad rugby documentary is deeply moving

Jul 27, 2005 at 12:00 am

After contracting a blood disease at age 9, Bob Lujano woke up in a hospital with his legs completely amputated and his arms lopped at the elbow, his skin seared. They thought he would die. High school jock Mark Zupan woke up paralyzed after his drunken best friend crashed his pickup truck while Zupan was in the back, sending him flying into a canal where he clung to a branch for hours before being rescued.

These guys don’t want your sympathy. They’re U.S. Paralympic rugby stars. And now they’re stars of Murderball, an engrossing, heartbreaking, heartwarming, educational and seldom-cheesy documentary.

Murderball is nonfiction storytelling at its best. On the surface, it’s a documentary about paralyzed young men imbued with the competitive spirit, many having been injured during their teens in sporting events, fights, and drunken and fluke accidents.

Directed by Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin, the film follows U.S. quadriplegic rugby players from the 2002 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, to the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. The United States is locked in a bitter rivalry with Canada, which leads to some great moments of suspense. But the sport is merely a backdrop for real-life tales — dramas of tragedy and triumph, narratives of rich and tortured lives that only sometimes fall victim to MTV-style footage.

The filmmakers hit the mother lode with a cast of powerful, flawed and developing characters that only the best screenwriter could dream up. These men are angry, egotistical, rambunctious, sensitive, highly competitive and preoccupied with getting laid — characters you might find on any sports team. And that’s the point.

Quadriplegics by definition have physical impairment in all four limbs, but the level of paralysis is as diverse as Murderball’s characters. These particular athletes have at least some use of their arms to propel specially made wheelchairs complete with rough metal-covered wheels straight out of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. The players use their chairs as battering rams in an effort to knock down and head off opponents before the ball can be taken over the goal line. These guys scoff at the use of helmets. What else could happen to them?

The story centers on a few main characters. First there’s Joe Soares, a former U.S. championship player who was so insulted when he didn’t make the cut for the Paralympic team that he jumped ship to coach the Canadian team. Soares is a Type-A macho male who set out from a young age to prove that he can’t be messed with. He recounts a story from his youth of a kid who crossed him at school, so he knocked the bully over and beat the daylights out of him. We see Soares taunting his former teammates and engaging in a back-and-forth war. But the real story is Soares’ home life. His son, a shy, bookish violin player, is browbeaten by his father for not being athletic. The son has to shine and dust his dad’s massive trophy cabinet. The camera follows Soares to his anniversary dinner with his wife. When she toasts to him, he toasts back, “To Team Canada.” You don’t get creative nonfiction better than this. Watching Soares develop is a highlight of the film.

Then there’s Lujano, a normal and darling man who just doesn’t have appendages. Despite this, he’s a gold-medal winning wheelchair rugby athlete, cooks for himself and types deftly on the computer at work, “just like any 33-year-old bachelor,” Lujano says. He uses his prosthetics only for certain purposes. He’s not the star, you won’t see him on Murderball posters, but he is an amazing testament to the power of the human spirit — and the ability of the body to adapt.

Murderball will make you see quadriplegics differently. It will help you to understand what it might be like to lose limbs, to live in a wheelchair, to exist without the full use of arms, hands, legs. But more than that, Murderball will move you, it will engage you and it will renew your faith in humanity.


Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111) and the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463).

Lisa M. Collins writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].