Hippo Manchester
September 15, 2005

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Murderball (R)
by Amy Diaz

Mark Zupan and the players on the American quadriplegic rugby team seek to dominate in the 2004 Paralympics in the gritty and engrossing Murderball.

First of all, what this film isnít: It isnít some motivational demonstration of the human spirit. In fact, the guys of the team (whose sport was called murderball until the name had to be softened for corporate sponsorship) would be the first to dispel any wussy notions that they want to play just to participate. These men are hungry with the same blood lust you see in any professional or world-champion-level athlete, perhaps even with more blood lust because their sport seems built to show off their bravado.

When off the court (a basketball court on which a version of rugby is played), these men seem most at home in bars where they drunkenly and boisterously discuss their athletic skills and their sexual prowess. (As one guy discusses, of all the things he wanted to learn to do for himself after his accident, the first and most important skill was relearning how to masturbate.) We quickly come to root for these guys not because they are fragile and wheelchair bound but because they are larger than life personalities, as dynamic and magnetic as any sports stars. Though some miss limbs and all use wheelchairs, the first word you think of to describe them is macho, not disabled.

What this movie is, therefore, is a sports movie so unflinching and straightforward in its attitude that you could never get something this engaging from fiction. With Zupan as the megawatt leader of the American team, the movie gives him an antagonist (though, really, they are both each otherís antagonists) in Joe Soares, the coach of the Canadian team. Both of these men have victory (first in a 2002 competition and then in 2004) as their almost singular focus. Their fanaticism towards the sport could be explained in psychological terms, I suppose, but the movie doesnít bother itself with such overthinking. These men live for murderball, period, the movie tells us.

And anyway, the best explanation for what murderball means in to its players comes through Kevin Cavill. A former motorcross racer, Cavill lands in a wheelchair with a broken neck. He takes to the sport and its unwillingness to let disability overcome manliness almost immediately. It seems to help him suffer through his rehabilitation and through the indignities of his new life (on returning home he wanly thanks his family and then says ďthis sucksĒ at all of these changes to his living quarters required by his wheelchair).

Murderball isnít just a great story, itís a great story told well ó without embellishment or sentimentality. The thrill of victory, agony of defeat and struggles of everyday are told matter-of-factly with the precision of a news story but without the rush to sensationalize.

What the sport and the movie do for these men is give them back their humanity, their maleness. Clearly, there is some urge by family and healthcare people to treat these men gently. Just as clearly, they want none of it. With its full, harsh contact, the sport seems like a welcome remedy for world that seems to want to view these men as breakable and needing care. Screw the hugs, these guys want to tackle.