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Quad-rugby doc "Murderball" is all about guts, glory
Seattle Times movie critic
"Everyone who gets hurt thinks they'll walk again," observes a wheelchair athlete in Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro's remarkable documentary "Murderball." That many with spinal-cord injuries do not walk again, and that this is not necessarily a tragedy but a transition into a life with different but vivid rewards, is the movie's message, conveyed by a troupe of athletes whose wheeled conveyances quickly become invisible. These are, we learn, just regular guys. They put on their pants one leg at a time, just like the rest of us; they just use a slightly different technique to do it.
Mark Zupan, Scott Hogsett, Andy Cohn, Bob Lujano and the other athletes profiled are members of Team USA, the national quad-rugby team, and the film follows them as they work toward their ultimate goal: a gold medal at the 2004 Paralympics (held immediately after the regular Olympics, in Athens). All are quadriplegics, with limited function in all four limbs. Along the way, there's plenty of hanging out with the guys, at wheelchair-eye-level, as they talk about sex (yes, they can, and do), regrets (no), and life in a chair, where their biggest problem is not their own limitations, but those of society.
One scornfully notes that, on a shopping trip, people comment "it's nice to see you out." What am I supposed to do, he wonders aloud — hide in a closet? Life, as these blunt, likable men remind us, goes on, and it's just fine.
"Murderball," a documentary directed by Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin. 86 minutes. Rated R for language and sexual content. Uptown.
But do not mistake "Murderball" for a feel-good, inspirational film, though it certainly makes its audience feel good, not to mention inspired. (The film won the audience award for best documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival last month.) These guys are tough, and this story is tougher, focusing on a clash that has nothing to do with disability: Joe Soares, a former star player for Team USA, is now coaching the rival Canadian team, and his former teammates make no attempt to hide their disgust. "How does it feel to betray your country?" one shouts at Soares. As the U.S. and Canada duel for glory in Athens, the film begins to feel like a perfectly scripted drama.
Soares is the kind of character only a skilled screenwriter could create. So tightly wound he seems perpetually on the verge of a heart attack (and has one, to no one's surprise, mid-film), the ultra-competitive Soares is obsessive to the point of absurdity: On an anniversary dinner, he responds to his wife's toast "To you" with "To Team Canada." The film has a moving subplot involving Soares' young son Robert, a sensitive boy who prefers playing the viola to athletic competition. It's one of the film's many rewards that we see the bond between them grow stronger.
And the athletic sequences, as the men race their tricked-out wheelchairs (which resemble small Roman chariots, with banged-up metal shields over the wheels) across a basketball-court floor, are exhilarating. We often speak of able-bodied athletes finding joy in movement, but it's nothing compared to what these guys have found in quad rugby: it is, as one player describes it, a whole different aspect of being in a wheelchair; one full of risk, excitement and abandon.
Keith Cavill, recently injured from a motocross accident, is shown having his first encounter with quad rugby, as Zupan introduces him to a rugged-looking rugby wheelchair. Cavill's eyes light up, for the first time since we've met him: Here's something a little wicked, a little reckless — a little like the life he had pre-accident.
Ultimately, the film is an affectionately manly tribute to these athletes, for whom every game — and every day — is a triumph. And good luck keeping in the tears as you watch the emotional final scenes, after the 2004 game. Says a proud, weeping father, as he bends to hug his athlete son, "I never thought we'd be here."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company