When two wheelchairs collide in Murderball, the stereotypes go flying. Quadriplegics aren't necessarily confined to a life of Christopher Reeve-like stasis. On the contrary, many of them are capable of going after each other with Road Warrior-like abandon. And they've invented a sport ' an extremely violent sport ' to prove it. Quad rugby is played on a basketball court, but don't expect many personal fouls to be called. These guys are in it for the contact, the chance to feel something in parts of them that have gone dead. If ever the case for gladiatorial combat could be made, this might be it ' murder as a form of physical therapy.
Actually, they don't call it murderball anymore, figuring that corporate sponsors would be turned off by the name. (They would?) And as Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin make clear in their myth-shattering documentary, these guys lead rich, full lives on and off the court ' the rich, full lives of jocks who can't wait to test themselves against the competition. The movie's structured around a pair of sporting events ' the 2002 World Championship, held in Sweden, where Team Canada upset the long-on-top USA team, and the 2004 Paralympics, held in Greece, where Team USA fought its way to... well, I don't want to give the whole thing away.
Besides, Murderball is at its best when it goes behind the scenes, offers us a look at lives that are often shrouded in mystery. The movie opens with a clip of a player changing from pants to shorts, and the smoothly laborious process is fascinating. So are the stories of trauma and recovery. Mark Zupan, outspoken member of Team USA, was flung from the bed of a pickup truck driven by his best friend. Both were drunk, but the friend had no idea Zupan was back there, passed out. Then there's Joe Soares, outspoken coach for Team Canada, who contracted polio as a child. Cut from the USA team because of his age, Soares headed up north to start his own dynasty.
The documentary plays up the rivalry between these two fierce competitors (not that it needs to), but it's kind of hard to believe they aren't secretly delighted that the other's there, egging him on. Soares, who seems prepared to sacrifice everything ' even his wife and son ' to win gold at Athens, is almost a clichÃ until you remember that the clichÃ doesn't usually involve a wheelchair. And so it goes with all these fine, upstanding gentlemen. In some ways, they're just a bunch of guys who like to work hard, play hard, party down and beat the holy crap out of one another. Which is to say, they're just a bunch of guys. And that may be the hardest-fought victory of them all.