For the past nine years, Zupan has played a sport few had even heard of until Murderball, a movie by co-directors Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, rolled into the Sundance Film Festival in January and collected two awards. Murderball --quadriplegic rugby -- pits two teams of four players against each other on a basketball court, where, for 32 minutes, they try to see who can get a volleyball between two red cones more often. It sounds benign enough, but it's perhaps the most violent sport this side of Thunderdome; even the specialized wheelchairs, with front bumpers used for ramming and wheels covered in protective metal, look cobbled together from the Mad Max junkyard. Zupan is the sport's star and the movie's, a warrior who plays a game that involves the tipping of chairs and flipping of men, all of whom have limited use of their limbs and some of whom are missing them altogether.
Yet one of the most remarkable things about Murderball, which is easily among the year's best movies, is how little of its time is filled with the playing of the game. Though it has an arc that bounces from the World Quad Rugby Championship in Sweden to the Paralympics in Athens, Greece and pits archrivals Team USA against Team Canada, it's a sports documentary in which victory is not the only thing. Rubin and Shapiro aren't suckers for the final score; they don't shift into slow-mo for that last goal. Theirs is a doc about perception and reality, about how tragedy can lead to the heroic moment. It's rousing and inspirational, but without the strain of a motivational speech; these men are accidental heroes at best. Had they not been injured, perhaps they would have led dull, ordinary lives. Instead, they're more than they might have been, simply with less than most.
Zupan, you see, is not only a bad-ass star of a brutal sport, but also a saver of lost souls, a proselytizer to those who believe their wheelchairs are their prisons. At the heart of the film is his friendship with and mentoring of Keith Cavill, introduced to us not long after a motocross accident landed him in a wheelchair. Once Zupan lets the kid sit in his tricked-out chair, Cavill is born-again hard: The kid who had given up wants on the hardwood, where he can hit someone just like his new hero.
There are two movies here: In one, Zupan and his teammates, who include Andy Cohn (injured in a car wreck) and Scott Hogsett (snapped spinal cord suffered during a backyard brawl), fight to retain their No. 1 world ranking against Team Canada, coached by disgruntled former Team USA member Joe Soares. Soares, who had polio as a child, was a Team USA star himself until he was cut from the team, and he's motivated solely by revenge. He's as close as the movie comes to a villain. Not even a heart attack suffered during filming can temper his fury. But Soares does soften toward his son, and he's not without his moment of redemption. It's among the many warm moments in a movie that flirts with mawkishness, but doesn't succumb to the easy out.
In the other half of Murderball, Zupan and his pals testify to how wonderful life at ass-level can be: They still screw, still get screwed up, and still screw around. Their lives can be miserable -- the opening scene reveals how torturous the simple act of dressing can be for Zupan -- but wonderful, too. "I've actually done more in a chair than I did able-bodied," Zupan tells a group of newly disabled men undergoing rehab. Hogsett's even more on the nose: "We're not going for a hug," he tells the filmmakers before leaving for Athens. "We're going for a medal." So, too, are Rubin and Shapiro. And they collect.