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Hell on Wheels: Mark Zupan plays for keeps in 'Murderball.'

Wheel Works

Wheelchair athletics are unsafe at any speed in documentary 'Murderball'

By Richard von Busack

IF THERE IS anyone who doubts that quadriplegics can be as obnoxious as anyone else—pissy and angry instead of soulful and gentle—Murderball won't have been made in vain. The film fest-acclaimed documentary disguises its acuteness, covering its insights in an inversion layer of MTV-financed cultural pollution. The first 15 minutes are big on the smashing editing and the clashing of metal during a quad rugby game—popularly called "Murderball." It's not a pretty sport, with wheelchair athletes in dented carts smashing into each other. This footage of human-powered bumper-cars grand prix is edited just like any other film of the X-Games. That crunching cutting that hypnotizes the audience on a TV set is abusive on a big screen.

Murderball takes a while to get down to its cases. Its hero is the tuft-bearded, tattooed Mark Zupan, the USA team's captain, a Floridian who broke his neck when he was 18. Two of Zupan's old acquaintances assure us that Zupan was "an asshole" even before the accident. His fierce competitiveness survived the truck accident that cost him his legs. Contrasting the fire of Zupan is the dead calm of his ex-teammate, Joe Soares, a polio-victim twice Zupan's age. Soares is a Portuguese immigrant from Providence who lost the use of his legs to polio. Murderball frames Soares as cranky lone wolf—a diabolically intense sportsman who went on to coach the Canadian national quad rugby team after he was cut from Team USA. Among Soares' worries is a son who prefers playing the violin to playing sports. (So it's more than just Soares' male-pattern-baldness head that makes you flash on Robert Duvall in The Great Santini.) In the film's showdown, Soares prepares to lead his Great White Northern team against the Yanks at the Para Olympics in Athens.

The movie's goatier side is a relief from the general earnestness. There's more to life than colliding wheelchairs. The section about the quad's sex lives satisfies the questions most people are too well bred to ask. Particularly humorous is one anecdote about a nurse excitedly revealing a sponge-bath-induced erection to the patient's mother. It's a nice variation on the "healing of the lame" sequence the movies previously gave us: "I can wank!" instead of "I can walk!"

Still, Murderball leaves a jingoistic aftertaste, despite its many inspirational moments and its Polyphonic Spree-accompanied moment of thrill of victory. Coaches always claim that sports is supposed to develop sportsmanship—that's the excuse for the pain, boredom and exclusion fostered by our sports-drunk society. Yet Soares "defection" to Canada gets him treated by fellow athletes as if he'd sold nuclear secrets to Ottawa. "How does it feel to betray your country?" Soares gets asked, seriously. And in a patriotic coda, the consolation of Quad Rugby is offered to the (sadly, very young) returning casualties of the Iraq war. Murderball wasn't supposed to be sweetness and light. Shapiro says, "We never wanted to make one of those up-with-people films." Be that as it may, the sentimentality the filmmakers supposedly locked the door against seems to have rolled right in through the window.

Murderball (R; 86 min.), a documentary by Dana Adam Shapiro, Jeffrey Mandel and Henry-Alex Rubin, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the July 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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