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Disabled athletes do battle in gripping documentary

We're used to the disabled being objects of pity and condescension.

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But Murderball, the winner of this year's Documentary Audience Award at Sundance, assures viewers that the disabled can also be bellicose, obnoxious, confrontational and out for blood, especially when they're playing quadriplegic rugby.

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Set to the strains of Ministry and Ween, co-directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro's electric rendition of the spills and jarring metallic clashes of the wheelchair-bound players in this hyper-competitive game captures the testosterone frenzy of any competitive sport dominated by men for whom winning is everything.

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The kinetically edited cacophony of the matches and the various Type A personality players is rendered with a ripping, stylish fury as bitter rivals — Team USA and Team Canada — prepare over the two-and-a-half year course of the film to face off at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.

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One of the reasons for the intense animosity between the teams is Canada's strutting, macho head coach, Joe Soares. A former USA player who jumped ship to lead the Canadians, Soares is a bitterly divisive figure, considered a traitor by many on Team USA.

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A victim of childhood polio, Soares is shown in his Tampa home where he lives, eats and breathes rugby when he isn't raining down his form of tough love on his teenage son's meek head.

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The film begins with the Team USA players detailing their shared off-court battles, such as the second-class treatment by well-meaning people who say the wrong things, and the fear of never having sex again. An instructional video narrated by a doctor who could take the wind out of anyone's coital sails underscores the latter concern.

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All the players prove far more analytical and reflective than your average gung-ho jocks. Their brush with mortality and profound setbacks have clearly made them re-evaluate who and what they are.

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Murderball then zeros in on a charismatic clump of Team USA players led by Mark Zupan, a heavily tattooed, archetypal tough guy disabled when his drunk best friend, Christopher Igoe, sent him sailing into a ditch where he clung to a tree for 13 hours. Zupan and Igoe have remained estranged since the accident, a gulf fueled by a macho fear of sharing feelings, compounded by layers of guilt and anger.

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Though he's the most visibly disabled, with four amputated limbs, the atypically quiet, laid-back Bob Lujano is a font of tenderness and an antidote to Zupan's macho bluster.

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A group of kindergartners visiting the Team USA training facility in Alabama want to know how Lujano eats pizza. He explains his injury, but mostly reassures them, clarifying an idea that crops up more than once in the film.

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"I'm all right. I'm alive. That's all that matters."

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Along with the Team USA rugby players plying their sport, the film backtracks to the surreal "mind fuck," as one athlete rightly calls it, that they all experienced when they awoke from their injuries in a hospital bed and realized that nothing would ever be the same again.

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An illustration of that slowly dawning horror is a young New Jersey man, Keith Cavill, paralyzed in a motocross accident. He is shown still in the hospital and struggling to both physically and mentally cope with his injury. Like all of the men in the drama, he is drawn to obsessively revisit the event that changed his life. In a disturbing moment, Cavill asks to see the bike and the dented helmet that serve as fragments of the tragedy. As he looks at his bike, he wears an expression of uncomprehending grief.

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Though it ropes you in with the sports, Murderball tends to buck the feel-good vibe and good guy-bad guy arc of that genre. It is, after all, hard to vilify a team of quadriplegics, all having gone through their own struggles, just because they are Team Canada. Instead, the film depicts a more profound and lifelong battle waged between these men and the circumstance they find themselves in.

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When these men lose, they lose hard, and the sight of the players and coaches hunched over, weeping in their chairs or comforted by their girlfriends and parents makes it clear there is something more than a sports competition going on at each game.

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Everyone, after all, goes home with his own cross to bear, victory or no victory.

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A postscript of the Team USA introducing a new crop of recruits to the sport is a brief, but harrowing further affirmation of the long road ahead for the disabled.

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By the film's conclusion, one baby-faced kid's expression has become familiar: a kind of numb, shell-shocked contemplation of how fundamentally his reality has been altered. Even the shrieking rage and emotional upsets of the on-court battle are preferable to that horrible look of absolute bewilderment.



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