Screens The healing power of violence

Murderball proves that one man's disability is another's transformation

If last year's Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside offended activist groups with plots they felt portrayed victims of spinal-cord injuries as inert and unworthy of life, Murderball is made to order - proving that quadriplegics can be as ornery, competitive, and vicious as their able-bodied peers. They can be jerks just like the rest of us, a freedom they in fact relish.

Murderball follows the U.S. quadriplegic rugby team to the Para-lympics, capturing poignant and hilarious details of the extraordinary athletes' lives along the way.

The documentary, which was extremely popular at this year's South by Southwest fest and is now reaping tons of press in its theatrical release, offers a look at the highly competitive world of wheelchair rugby - a sport in which players don gladiator-style wheelchairs built to withstand crunching impacts and frequent roll-overs. The welded-together chairs look like contraptions out of Mad Max, and the men inside them seem well-suited for that post-apocalyptic environment despite their disabilities. Most laypeople think "quadriplegic" means "completely paralyzed," but it simply indicates some loss of movement in all four limbs. As these competitors prove, you can do a lot with limited mobility.

The film's sports angle is highly involving: After introducing us to the game's rules, it sets up a bitter rivalry in which one star, a hot-headed, unbelievably competitive man who gets kicked off the U.S.A. team, defects to become the Canadian team's coach. What's worse, he leads the Canucks to defeat the longtime-champion Americans. Understandably, his old teammates hold a grudge, and the filmmakers follow as they take the rivalry to the Paralympics. (The Paralympics, not to be confused with the Special Olympics, are an offshoot of the official Olympics for athletes with physical disabilities; held in the same facilities after the main attraction has ended, the Games draw some amazing talent.)

On another front, Murderball affords a fascinating look at what it's like to suffer a spinal-cord injury. The rugby team's players talk frankly about every aspect of their lives, from dealing with a curious public to re-learning how to have sex, and we see how near-death accidents affect friendships and family dynamics. (We get more backstory on the charismatic Austinite Mark Zupan, whose best friend was driving drunk when he was injured, than on anyone else.)


Dir. Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro; feat. Mark Zupan, Joe Soares, Keith Cavill (R)
But the filmmakers also introduce us to a young man whose wounds are still fresh - an injured dirtbike enthusiast who hasn't yet heard of wheelchair rugby. We endure physical therapy with him, seeing the rare moments when his acceptance gives way to self-pity. And then, in a truly moving sequence that is like icing on this entertaining film's cake, we travel with him to a meeting where the U.S. rugby team introduces newly injured patients to the sport. After making his peace with the fact that he'll never ride a motorcycle again, he realizes that he isn't condemned to a sedentary life. Watching the pure joy in his eyes when, borrowing Zupan's gladiator chair, he tentatively bashes into another guy's wheelchair, viewers may be convinced of the healing power of violence.

By John DeFore

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