Murderball Movie Review

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Another title for Murderball might have been Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Quadriplegics... But Were Afraid to Ask. From the opening scene, showing athlete Mark Zupan changing out of his regular pants into athletic shorts without benefit of movement in his legs, the nuts and bolts of a quadriplegic's life come to light. And though the sport he suits up for may have undergone a name change from "murderball" to the less-grim moniker "quad rugby," it's still a fast-paced, brutal contest that serves as the jumping off point for this fascinating documentary about the lives of some amazing competitors.

The film opens in Sweden with the 2002 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships. In rapid-fire succession we're introduced to the players and the rules. We learn how the competitors' wheelchairs are outfitted like gladiators' chariots, with steel plating designed to withstand any impact. Point values are assigned each player commensurate with the level of their disability (the most literal form of handicapping) and only a limited point total can be in the game at any time. The athletes are then unleashed onto a regulation basketball court where they proceed to slam, block, and swarm the opposition in an attempt to move the ball from one end to the other.

A pounding soundtrack featuring the likes of Ministry punctuates the kinetic camerawork that captures each match. Fast-paced editing complements dizzying camera angles, including a shot from the bottom of a wheelchair. These techniques create an exhilarating visual style uncommon in documentaries. These moments help shape the overall arc of the film, as the American team faces its Canadian rivals again and again on the road to the Paralympics in Athens.

But this film is more interested in capturing the players' lives than their sport. Rival Canadian coach Joe Soares, once a star on the American quad rugby circuit but dismissed because of old age, now leads an embittered charge against his former team. The troubled dynamic between him and his non-athletic son drives one of the film's numerous personal dramas, which include Zupan's difficult relationship with best friend Chris Igoe, who's ultimately responsible for Zupan's condition.

Perhaps the most moving story belongs to Keith Cavill, who's not a player at all. We first meet him soon after an injury leaves him wheelchair-bound with only partial use of his arms and hands. The film follows him through ten months of rehab and his bittersweet return home. The camera is unflinching, lingering as he struggles to untie a Velcro strap or open an envelope. This approach makes the moment when his path crosses that of the players all the more poignant.

In addition to mining these stories for their dramatic value, the filmmakers, Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, also use them to illustrate what life is actually like as a quadriplegic. We see what it is to drive, do dishes, pick up girls, play practical jokes, and have sex without full use of your arms and legs or, in some cases, without conventional arms and legs at all. And the film effectively dispels the myth that none of the above is possible in that condition.

And it's the dispelling of those myths, especially for those saddled with them upon becoming a quadriplegic, that the film seems to celebrate most. And it depicts the hope that comes from challenging those notions in a very unsentimental, yet moving, way. At the same time, the film is well aware of the unabashed thrill of watching athletes come together to bash the ever-living crap out of each other. With Murderball, you get plenty of both.

Reviewed at the 2005 Philadelphia Film Festival.

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Murderball Rating

" Extraordinary "

Rating: NR, 2005

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