Tuesday, 4 July 2006

Murderball (2005)

Seize life by the balls!

The natural sex ratio for human societies is about 105 boys to 100 girls at birth. That brings up a problem: what happens to the surplus males? We expect the more macho of them to succeed in life, the so-called Type A theory, if you will. Jocks snag the girls when they are young, become boardroom warriors when they are older. That’s plain wrong. What happens to overaggressive males of the population is simply called natural selection. These young men lead the type of wild life that snag the girls, but they often get killed doing one of their impressive but dangerous stunts, or in a pointless brawl, for example. That’s how the adult sex ratio gets evened out slowly. Those overaggressive males who survive their teens? Historically, they get themselves in the army. It’s a convenient way for societies to get rid of their surplus males once in a while, by sending them into battle. That’s natural selection.

But what happens when natural selection doesn’t finish the job?

Meet the cast. Aside from two cases of childhood diseases (polio and meningitis), the rest are victims of natural selection. There’s the jock who drank himself into a stupor, lay down in the back of his friend’s truck, and was catapulted into a river when the truck crashed. There’s another jock who got into a brawl and was hit in the throat, severing vertebrae in his neck. There’s another one who simply says he was thrown off a balcony at a drunken party. We assume he must’ve tried to pull some silly party trick, or worse, that was his silly party trick. Now quadriplegics and wheelchair users for life, with varying control of their four limbs (or stumps), you’d expect them to be more circumspect, but these people aren’t going to let natural selection get the better of them!

Instead, they play wheelchair rugby, a game that is played in an indoor basketball court. As star player Zupan explains, the sport was originally called murderball, “but you can't market Murderball to corporate sponsors.” It’s even an official sport in the Paralympics, and the cast are players on the US team for wheelchair rugby. And there’s Joe Soares, an ex-player in the US team until he was taken out for old age. Believing he can still contribute, Soares is the coach for Team Canada and the nemesis of Team USA in this documentary, which refuses to play like a weepy Hallmark matinee feature. Instead, the filmmakers take great care not to cast a pitying eye on the athletes, and open the film with a bold and fresh concept: show viewers who these players really are: jocks.

And by that, I mean arrogant, overaggressive, assholes. In an interview, Chris Igoe (the friend with the truck) explains: "Joe Soares is an asshole. He was before his accident. and he is now." There’s no love lost between Soares and Team USA, but Soares is just as obnoxious and arrogant an asshole as any member of his former teammates. That’s refreshing! How bad are they? We get to see match-long displays of utter unsportsmanlike behaviour from everyone on the field, off the field. The grudge match is so deep ("If he were on the side of the road and on fire I wouldn't piss on him to put him out") that the traditional handshake between players before the match is accompanied by trading of insults between the Canada and US teams.

The game itself is a joy to watch. Wheelchair rugby is a contact sport, where players build and customise their competition wheelchairs to the point where they describe these machines as “something out of Mad Max”. These contraptions have a front bumper, which are designed to crash into opposing wheelchairs, and the best result of a crash is seeing an opponent’s wheelchair getting toppled. No worries, the referees simply right the contraption over for the player.

Yes, every one in the court plays to win the game. They’re jocks after all. The filmmakers are pros, taking their time to slowly – using the first half of the film – to disabuse audiences of the notion that these are pitiable people. Whether on court, in practice, at play, or at home, most of the players are simply unpleasant people to live with. I respect the filmmakers’ decision, because by refusing to take the easy way out, they set themselves the gargantuan task in the second half, of persuading the audience to give a care for the players, to see them not as just arrogant jocks, to make us root for both Soares, Team USA, and Team Canada. For them to do this in less than one and a half hours adds to the scale of their task.

Do Rubin and Shapiro succeed? I believe they manage to humanise the cast eventually, while avoiding almost all of the Hallmark weepy moves. There is a lot of sharp humour and honesty in the filmmakers’ rehabilitation of the cast, and by the time the curtains rise for the final showdown between the two teams, all nasty memories of the first half might be well forgotten.

Murderball may be a documentary, but it rivals the best sports dramas (Friday Night Lights, for example) in terms of sheer intensity, emotional scope, storytelling, and sports camerawork. This is a must-watch for all sports fans!

First published at incinemas on 6 July 2006

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