Reviewed by: Paul Allen

Winner of the best documentary at Sundance, this spectacular film charts the bitter rivalry between two Paralympic teams. Murderball - the street name for quad rugby - is a violent, high-octane sport that takes its cue from American football, wheelchair rugby and British bulldogs. Played on a regular basketball court, each player is awarded a disability mark (from 0.5 to 3.5) depending on the degree of upper-body mobility. No team can go above eight points at any time. But when the whistle blows, pretty much anything goes.

The movie spec suggests macho, testosterone-soaked fare that will appeal only to sports jocks. But, in the hands of Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin, the story of the US and Canadian teams route to the 2004 Athens Paralympics crosses boundaries. Each player's personal story is every bit as powerful as the explosive on-court action. Expert editing ensures that the pace never slackens.

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The chief protagonists are Mark Zupan, the goateed, heavily tattooed, US team spokesman and highly-strung Canadian coach, Joe Soares. Unlike his nemesis, whose disability is the result of childhood polio, Zupan was paralysed in a freak accident. After a college party, he passed out in the back of best friend Chris Igoe's pickup truck. Igoe, also drunk and having no idea Zupan was in the back, crashed the car and unknowingly threw him into a canal. Zupan never walked again.

In his playing days, Team Canada boss Soares was one of America's greatest quad rugby stars. But his pride couldn't accept being dropped, and he left to coach his country's greatest rivals with one mission: to beat the Yanks.

In the hands of lesser directors, Murderball would still have been a good film. It's impossible not to feel moved by the respective teams' triumph over adversity. But the players don't ask for our sympathy and, crucially, their lust for life never brings it into question.

What raises the movie above the average is former Spin magazine editor Shapiro's journalistic eye, which ensures that all the angles are covered. Zupan is the movie's obvious hero, but the director avoids any lazy stereotyping. Instead, he intersperses shots of Zupan's on-court heroics with good-natured banter from his old college mates. ("He was a jerk before he was in a wheelchair....").

The addition of Keith Cavill is another masterstroke. Cavill is still in rehab after a motorcross accident. Paralysed and still adjusting to life in a wheelchair, the young man meets Zupan in hospital. It's a life-changing moment. When he tests out a murderball wheelchair for the first time, there is a palpable and hugely moving sense of empowerment. But here again, the directors don't linger. Soon we're back witnessing more bone-shuddering on-court tackles, as the teams slog it out for Paralympic gold.

Better start queuing now for those London 2012 murderball tickets.

Reviewed on: 03 Nov 2005
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The passionate, violent, disabled world of quad rugby is uncovered as Team USA seeks gold in Athens.
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Angus Wolfe Murray *****

Director: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro

Starring: Joe Soares, Mark Zupan, Andy Cohn, Bob Lujano, Keith Cavill, Scott Hogsett, Christopher Igoe

Year: 2005

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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