Nothing about the words "wheelchair rugby" implies dignity or respectability; the sport sounds like it falls somewhere between foxy-boxing and dwarf-tossing on the sensationalism scale. Then again, the game's original name was "murderball," so maybe "wheelchair rugby" is a step up. But either way, the partially disabled athletes who play the game clearly take it seriously, not simply as a sport, but as a means to prove their independence and express themselves. In Murderball, former Spin editor Dana Adam Shapiro and documentarian Henry Alex Rubin do fully exploit the sport's visual novelty, with montages of glowering players smashing and flipping each other's battered, tanklike chairs, as Ministry howls in the background. But Shapiro and Rubin spend far more time delving into the personalities behind the sport, and the motivations that give it shape.
The directors focus primarily on a made-to-order grudge match, and on two polarizing figures: aggressive, tattooed Texan Mark Zupan, who plays for America's wheelchair-rugby team in the international Paralympics, and Joe Soares, a high-strung former American player who was cut from the team as he got older, and took revenge by coaching Canada's team to its first world-championship victory in 2002. Murderball starts with that contest, then tracks Soares and Zupan as they prepare to meet again at the 2004 Paralympics. Meanwhile, players reveal how they became quadriplegic (Soares had polio as a child; a drunk-driving accident threw Zupan from a pickup-truck bed into a canal, where he spent nearly 14 hours holding his head above water before he was rescued), and the film explores their family lives, their recovery processes, and why they play. The directors also discuss fallacies about quadriplegia—the game's players have some degree of paralysis in all four limbs, but their mobility varies widely, and the team dynamic takes that into account. Such details help Murderball surpass the typical who-will-win sports-film dynamic, instead making it a fascinating and personal exploration of disability, from life-changing tragedies to the decision to survive—and to excel.
Like so many extreme-sports movies, Murderball bristles with testosterone; some of the players Shapiro and Rubin interview seem mild enough, especially when chatting with children during an educational outreach. But Zupan and Soares look like they'd rather be meeting in a gladiatorial ring than on a basketball court, and their angry, competitive energy gives Murderball a razor edge. From the brutal games to the frank discussions and depictions of quadriplegic sex, Murderball maintains a mildly voyeuristic bent throughout, but Shapiro and Rubin balance it perfectly by looking past both the disabilities and the tough-jock exteriors to find the humanity beneath. Few sports movies with a premise this powerful ever bother to dig this deep.