Gladiators on Wheels - The Men of 'Murderball'

Welcome to 'Murderball,' a world of testosterone-fueled grudge matches, welded aluminum wheelchairs decked out in Mad Max trappings and hyper-dedicated athletes smashing into each other in bone-rattling multi-man collisions.

Still think quadriplegics are fragile?

Mark Zupan, spokesman for Team USA, fights for the ball.


 
The word is more likely to conjure up sympathetic images of Christopher Reeve and a different kind of specialized wheelchair than physically impaired gladiators playing rugby on wheels, but just try and tell that to the guys on the court then get out of the way, fast.
 
As thrilling and inspiring as it is funny and irreverent, Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro's eye-opening documentary follows the USA Quad Rugby (the newer, more sponsor-friendly name for the game) team, their intense rivalry with Team Canada and their two year road to the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. Their lives and bodies have changed drastically, but their competitive drives are still strong as ever. This isn't just about showing up and participating, it's about winning, and the USA-Canada rivalry is personified by the grudge between win-at-all costs Canadian coach Joe Soares and USA rising star and spokesman Mark Zupan. Soares, a gold medalist and former star of Team USA, defected to the rival Canadian team after being cut from the US squad; Zupan and the US team see him as a traitor, further fueling the competition between the world's top two teams.  

Andy Cohn (right) and teammate try to wrestle the ball from a British player.

The film would work as a story of triumph over adversity or a straightforward sports movie the smash mouth quad rugby action is such a thrill to watch that it's easy to forget that 'Murderball' isn't a sports film but Rubin and Shapiro dig even deeper, delivering an unfettered look at life as a quadriplegic, along with a tacit critique of sports mania and how obsession with winning can wreak havoc on one's personal life.

Though forced into wheelchairs by fist fights, car crashes, childhood illness and a host of other factors, the men of 'Murderball' are still the same rowdy jocks as before, an eclectic and colorful cast of characters as delightfully un-PC as the sport's original name. Fiercely independent and incredibly adept at adapting, these men would sooner start fights than be coddled, and their handicaps are more often used as fodder for practical jokes and excuses for debauchery than pleas for sympathy. 

Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, co-directors of 'Murderball'


 
Nothing is taboo for these men, and they're happy to answer all the questions we'd normally be afraid to ask. From gleeful descriptions of post-quadriplegic sexcapades to heartfelt recollections of how they came to terms with their injuries, they offer us a window into their daily lives, supplemented by plenty of footage of the practical tasks in their home lives. Their openness transcends any preconceptions we may have and allows us to know them for who they are rather than how they're handicapped.

These athletes are so impressive to watch that it's easy to forget the years of rehabilitation it took to get to that point, but the film brings the fresh wounds of paralysis into sharp relief with Keith Cavill, who's recently become a quadriplegic after a motocross accident. His struggle to relearn basic functions is poignant reminder of just how much these men have overcome, and it's heartbreaking to watch him stare at the dirt bikes he can no longer use. An athlete suddenly removed from his sport and his old life, Cavill finds new hope during a visit from Zupan introducing the patients in the rehab center to quad rugby. There's nothing quite like the look in Cavill's eyes when he first sits in a murderball wheelchair the moment when he realizes that despite his paralysis, he's not done yet.

Zupan drives down the court.

These men are living proof of the resilience of the human spirit, but their nonchalant and decidedly un-PC attitudes help keep 'Murderball' from becoming saccharine or pedantic. The result is a joyfully irreverent and inspiring look at the athletes who've turned handicaps into triumphs in a sport that's as entertaining as anything on the silver screen today. Neither heroes nor invalids, they live in wheelchairs, use hooks for appendages and often can't even make a fist, but still play the game as if it were the only thing that mattered.

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