Star athlete Mark Zupan's intense, goateed face dominates the print ads for Murderball, the latest crossover documentary to emerge from the Sundance Film Festival. In fact, he's depicted in such extreme close-up that you can't even get a sense of what kind of sport murderball might be; the photo is clearly an action shot, but everything beyond Zupan's upper torso is either outside of the frame or artfully blurred. What the folks responsible for this laughable bit of hypocrisy don't want you to know is that Zupan is in a wheelchair, engaged in a typically punishing game of quad (as in -riplegic) rugby -- part basketball, part bumper cars. They're afraid that if people find out the film's subjects are disabled, they won't want to see the movie, killer buzz or no.
The sad thing is, they're right to be concerned -- not because the average filmgoer is such a contemptible mope, but because Murderball, for all its lip service about normalcy, is essentially a maudlin, expository "gimps are people too" lesson disguised as an extreme-sports romp. Zupan and his teammates make terrific camera subjects, articulate and engaging, and to the extent that the film concentrates on their competitive drive -- plus just the awe-inspiring sight of dudes smashing full-tilt-boogie into each other with custom-built wheelchairs resembling gladiatorial chariots -- it's rousing entertainment. There isn't an ounce of self-pity to be found in these athletes, who are all about annihilating the opposition -- especially their hated Canadian rivals, coached by former U.S. quad rugby champ Joe Soares, who defected up north when he was cut from the American squad in middle age.
If only Murderball were content to let them simply be athletes. Instead, the film engages in repeated and tiresome digressions designed to show us that these men, despite their various handicaps (quadriplegia, by the way, merely entails some loss of function in all four limbs, not complete immobility), lead ordinary, happy, turbulent lives just like you or me. Which, of course, has precisely the opposite effect, italicizing their differences and turning the film into an implicit lecture on How to Treat the Disabled. Instead of just meeting Zupan's lovely and fully ambulatory girlfriend, we're told how Zupan managed to land such a hottie even though he's in a wheelchair. When the players prepare for a match, we discover what an arduous task dressing yourself can be when you're stuck in a wheelchair. If the movie itself demonstrated even half the respect that it demands from us, all of this stuff would be incidental, barely acknowledged. We know they're people. Just let them kick ass.