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Friday, Oct. 20, 2006

They got grit, spit and the ball

If you ever thought rugby players were a bunch of nutters, wait until you see "Murderball." This astounding documentary covers the sport of quad rugby, where wheelchair-bound quadriplegic athletes play an intensely physical game that's half bumper-cars, half kill-the-man-with-the-ball.

Murderball Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Mark Zupan thrusts forward in "Murderball."

Director: Dana Adam Shapiro, Jeffrey Mandel and Henry Alex Rubin
Running time: 85 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (Oct. 20, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Yes, "Murderball" proves that the disabled can tackle extreme sports -- though how you define "disabled" will certainly change after you see some of the hits these guys deal out with their Mad Max-ish modified wheelchairs. This is a film where you can almost smell the testosterone.

"Murderball" is co-directed by Dana Adam Shapiro, Jeffrey Mandel and Henry Alex Rubin, but the very anti-PC, taboo-busting nature of the doc makes you wonder at times whether you might be watching a faux-documentary by the Farrelly Bros. ("There's Something About Mary," etc.) or a prank off of "Jackass."

Certainly, when you've got a quadriplegic talking trash like, "What, you're not gonna hit a kid in a chair? F***in' hit me! I'll hit back!," you might wonder if it's a put-on. Rest assured, it is not.

"Murderball," by refusing to treat its subjects with kid gloves, goes a long way toward showing that guys in chairs are still very much guys, swearing, sweating, enjoying competitive sports and picking up girls. (As quad-jock Scott Hogsett cheerfully admits, "the more pitiful I am, the more the women like me.")

The film primarily follows the rivalry between Team Canada and Team USA between 2002-2004, while focusing in on the lives of several players. Team USA's star is Mark Zupan -- a tattooed, glowering competitor who looks like he could run his chair through a wall. Even his friends point out that "he was already an asshole before the accident." His counterpart on Team Canada is the team's coach, Joe Soares, a former star on Team USA who was cut from the squad and has a score to settle. Soares is a heart-attack waiting to happen, a Type-A personality in extremis, a guy who long ago (he was crippled by polio as a child) decided he'd rather be loathed than pitied. The movie sees him trying to pick fights with Zupan, and calling a female referee a "f***ing bitch."

Other players, like Andy Cohn and Bob Lujano are also profiled, and we hear them all discuss how they were crippled, and how they came back from it. Lujano, who lost both legs and forearms to meningitis, tells of learning to drive using his elbows, while Cohn, who broke his neck in a car crash, talks about how "everyone who gets hurt thinks they're gonna walk again. Your mind is a bigger disability."

We see what he means in the form of Keith Cavill, a motocross racer who was paralyzed in an accident. His recovery is slow, and when he returns home, reminders of how his life used to be are depressing. But the prospect of a new wheeled sport, raised when he meets Zupan, immediately lifts his spirits.

A more pressing question, though, which Cavill poses to his doctor, is will he be able to make it with his girlfriend ever again? The directors pose this question to the athletes, and their answer is a resounding, hilarious "yes." As one quad-jock tells it, his first objective in rehabilitation was masturbation, or, as he puts it, "I'd rather be able to grab my meat than a toothbrush."

If there's one quibble with this film, it's that despite plenty of game-time action shots -- including guys getting knocked out of their chairs -- the filmmakers never give a good feel for the flow and play of the game. But don't complain: It's not everyday that you can go see a movie that will so effectively destroy your preconceptions. It's kind of reassuring to know that you can go through one of the most traumatic changes life can offer and still retain that competitive drive. While the New Age gurus insist we must learn from illness and injury, find the "benefits" of the experience, this film shows that the athletic mantra -- to push yourself to your limits -- allows you to move ahead strongly while not learning a damn thing from the experience, if you don't feel like it.

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