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Inspiring ‘Murderball’ aims at the heart

Analise Lipari | Wednesday, September 7, 2005

It’s rare today to find a film that can both jar the mind and stir the spirit. In a summer that gave the American public both the “Deuce Bigalow” sequel and the mind-numbing “Stealth,” a film as gritty and satisfying as “Murderball” is running – or rolling, rather – against the grain.

The documentary, directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, showcases the sport of quadriplegic rugby, affectionately nicknamed “murderball” by its devoted players for the fierce intensity with which the game is played. Equipped with specially built wheelchairs that look like they were welded by a cross between the “American Chopper” crew and a demolition derby expert, two teams zoom, throw and check their way across a regulation basketball court in a four-period match.

Power is ultimately the name of the game, however, as a full-on smash between players is all but encouraged to be victorious.

The film opens with a series of short interviews with members of the U.S. national quad rugby team, captioned by name only – Hogsett, Andy, Zupan – and describing how they came to be paraplegics. These interviews are spotted throughout the movie, giving people a glimpse into the lives of men forever changed by a car accident or a wrestling match gone wrong. Getting to know the players lends the film a hard-earned human side that is skillfully balanced with the gruff nature of the sport itself.

Overall, the movie tracks the American team as they progress from the world championship in Sweden to the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. On another level, however, is the real story – the battle between the teams from the United States and Canada, which centers on one man: Joe Soares.

Eight years prior, Joe sat at the top of the quad rugby world, leading the American team to victory in the 1996 Games. Following a messy battle with the American coaches, however, Joe and his bruised ego made a deal to coach the Canadian national team, beginning a rivalry which has reached full blast by the time the film opens.

Joe is loud, abrasive, and mesmerizing – when he’s on the screen, the audience is drawn to his explosive temper and blazing stare, just to see what he’ll do next. It takes a heart attack halfway through the film to loosen Joe up, but it is the intensity and drive of Joe and the respective teams that hallmarks the cutthroat competition, and draws the viewer in.

Where the film really shines, however, is in the smaller moments that address what life is like when someone’s limbs are nearly useless. Listening to Bob Lujano describe a dream in which he’s flying, limbs intact or watching goateed team leader Mark Zupan bring murderball lessons to a local hospital’s newly disabled, hits the heart in a quiet but affecting way.

The film is definitely not humorless, however: one sequence involving a sex-ed video for paraplegics is particularly memorable. It’s the revelation of the tough ordinariness of the players’ lives, as well as their athletic strengths, which blows the mind of the audience, destroying any preconceptions.

Guilt, bitterness, reconciliation, power, strength, anger and love: all are expressed in the faces and lives of these unknowing titans on wheels, and the result is one amazing way to spend 85 minutes.