‘Murderball’ really rips

  • By Robert Horton / Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, July 21, 2005 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Some documentaries are very nice to look at and perfectly interesting. You want to see a neat movie about penguins, go check out “March of the Penguins.”

Exhilarating: Documentary about quad rugby players, who play a violent wheelchair game. The movie has a good sports suspense angle, but it also gives background on the players and their lives.

Rated: R rating is for language, subject matter, nudity.

Now showing: Uptown.

But some documentaries are exhilarating. Case in point: “Murderball,” a stoked and inspiring take on a sport that takes no prisoners. Unofficially, this violent practice is called murderball, but officially it is known as quad rugby. It’s a variation on rugby, played on an indoor court, by players who happen to be quadriplegics in wheelchairs.

“Quadriplegic” means having paralysis in arms as well as legs, but with most murderball players, this means having mobility, if impaired, in their arms – enough to let them zip around the court, shove opposing players, and throw the ball to each other.

Filmmakers Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro followed players in the quad rugby league around for a couple of years, and were especially fortunate to catch the crest of an intense rivalry.

One of the central figures is Joe Soares, a manically wired former player for the U.S. team. (Think of the drill sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket” on a caffeine jag.) When Soares was dropped from the team after he turned 40, he furiously bolted to Canada, where he took over the coaching job. Now his main goal in life is to crush the Americans in gladiatorial battle.

The movie takes a look at Soares’ life, including his testy relationship with a son who hasn’t become an athlete like him. It also looks into the lives of a group of U.S. players, the leaders of the team.

The most vivid of these players is Mark Zupan, a tattooed, goateed firebrand who loves competition about as much as he dislikes Soares. Zupan would be a superstar in any sport – he’s the Terrell Owens figure, with a little Dennis Rodman thrown in, the guy whose skills are even louder than his considerably loud mouth. He’s a hoot.

The film gives background on Zupan and the other players, describing their injuries and treatment. In Zupan’s case, it’s a difficult story, because his good friend was driving when their car crashed.

There’s also the story of a young man who was only recently paralyzed, and whose difficult rehab we glimpse. His journey provides balance to the confident, wisecracking murderball players.

Overall, “Murderball” does a splendid job of allowing us to see its people as people first, rather than being defined only by their disabilities. These guys are aggressive and funny, smart and dumb, wise and immature. Like other guys their age.

Because it also has an exciting sports-movie structure, “Murderball” clips along with great suspense (remember how nail-biting “Spellbound” was, and that was a spelling bee). This is a keeper, folks.

Mark Zupan is one of the highly competitive quadriplegic rugby players competing in the Paralympic Games, in the documentary “Murderball.”

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