Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Movie Review: Murderball

Now that I finished Season 5 of The Wire (sigh...I'm sad it's over), I'm now back to chipping away at my extensive Netflix queue. This weekend, I watched Murderball, the 2005 documentary about quadriplegic wheelchair rugby. The film is less about the sport than it is about the players, and these atheletes are indeed compelling subject material. The main character of the film is Mark Zupan, a high school jock who became paralyzed after being thrown from the bed of a pick-up truck driven by his best friend. Zupan instantly breaks down preconceived notions of what handicapped people are like- he has tattoos, a goatee, and a sexy girlfriend. In spite of the wild persona, he's dedicated to his sport and his teammates, who also love the sport for the focus it has given them and the friendships they have forged. Most of the players became paralyzed as a result of some sort of accident that resulted in a broken neck, and it is impossible to imagine what these young men went through, emotionally and physically, as they adjusted to life in a wheelchair. The film does give us a glimpse in the recently injured Keith Cavill- a handsome former BMX biker leaving rehab to come home to an apartment now fitted with ramps and a handicapped bathroom: "this sucks," he comments.

Another storyline follows Zupan's former teammate and current adversary, Joe Soares, an American who became disgruntled when he was cut from the squad and took a job as the head coach of rival Canada. Joe was left paralyzed from a childhood bout of polio but is a force of nature- intensely competitive and self-absorbed, he initially comes off as an asshole, but as the movie progresses, he becomes more sympathetic and almost likeable. Of everyone featured in Murderball, it's the unassuming and friendly Bob Lujano who is the most inspirational character. As a child, he had all four limbs amputated and still manages to excel in the sport, saying that he goes through life using what he has, and patiently answering questions like "how do you eat pizza if you don't have any hands?" from children in post-game meet and greets.

One of the best aspects of the film is that it's not cloying or overly didactic- it lets the players, their situations, and the sport speak for themselves rather than providing a series of Hallmark moments. What their participation on the USA wheelchair rugby squad means to them is apparent. In addition to practicing and competing, the murderball players serve as ambassadors of the sport and of paraplegics in general, interacting with fans and the media, and holding informational sessions and rehabilitation centers. Towards the end of the film, they meet with soldiers who lost limbs in the Iraq war, most of whom are shockingly young.
I don't normally watch documentaries but I really enjoyed Murderball and would highly recommend it. It's a fascinating and uplifting portrayal of a group of people and a sport I really knew nothing about.

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