Murderball (R) *** 1/2

Keith Cavill, Joe Soares, Mark Zupan
Directed by Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
3:30 p.m., Saturday, June 11

"I'm in a wheelchair. This sucks." So says Keith Cavill, a quadriplegic who lost the use of his legs and much of the use of his hands in a motocross accident and is just attempting to adjust to life out of rehab. It's the closest to self-pity that anyone in the entertaining documentary Murderball ever comes. The film follows quadriplegics who engage in the titular sport, more commonly known as wheelchair rugby. In specially modified chairs, the disabled athletes compete in a rough, full-contact game played on a basketball court. They're as physical and as boisterous as any other athletes, talking trash and indulging in rivalries.

Directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro don't patronize their subjects or their audience, portraying the players realistically and sympathetically but without kid gloves. They delve into such touchy subjects as the sexuality of quadriplegics and the guilt of one man who was responsible for his friend's confinement to a wheelchair. Mostly though, the film is exuberant and exciting, and Rubin and Shapiro have done a good job of finding charismatic subjects.

They luck out, too, by stumbling onto a rivalry worthy of any good sports movie. Former USA Paralympic team player Joe Soares, cut from the squad, defects to the Canadian team as head coach, and the two countries engage in a tense, close game at the 2002 World Championships in Sweden. Soares and his team win by a nose, setting up a grudge match at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

Rubin and Shapiro perhaps spend a little too much time with the competitive, sometimes abrasive Soares, especially since some of the Team USA players who get less screen time appear just as interesting. Their other star is USA player Mark Zupan, whose complex relationship with the friend whose drunk driving caused his injuries is fascinating and a bit underplayed.

Murderball is so eager to show quadriplegics living normal lives that it could be accused of downplaying the hardships that go along with such injuries, but given how often we've seen disabled people struggling to get by, the opposite portrayal is refreshing. Whenever things get too upbeat, Rubin and Shapiro can always cut to the struggling Cavill, although by film's end, even he seems about to change his life with the transformative power of rugby.
Josh Bell


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