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Life-Affirming ‘Murderball’ Inspires

By Kapil Amarnath Murderball

Directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro

Starring Keith Cavill, Joe Soares, and Mark Zupan

Rated R

As I settled in for “Murderball,” I noticed that there were only four people in the theater: me, a friend of mine, and an elderly couple. When the credits rolled, I wondered how countless people could toss money in the coffers of “Fantastic Four,” while missing out on this film. “Murderball” is uplifting and informative, befitting of the Audience Award it won at Sundance.

“Murderball,” the original name of quadriplegic rugby, was invented in Canada in 1979. The film is a documentary that explains why, as declares, it’s “the fastest growing wheelchair sport in the world.” The movie excels most when it relates the lives of its players to ours through familiar activities. Moreover, it gracefully portrays the impact of the sport on the journey quadriplegics travel, from coping with their condition to parenthood.

Keith Cavill lost the use of his legs in a Motocross accident in 2003. He shares a rapport with those who take care of him and who share his situation, regardless of race or background. At home, however, he’s constantly reminded of his injury. When he goes to an information session on quadriplegic rugby, and tries one of the “Mad Max” wheelchairs, a spark returns to his eyes.

That enthusiasm for the sport has turned into a fierce intensity in Mark Zupan. His desire to excel and prove others wrong is a characteristic the players develop after their injuries. Underneath that passion, many of them, for better or worse, are Jack Daniels drinkin’, tattoo-covered jocks that just want to have a little fun with their girlfriends. Zupan’s situation is further complicated because his best friend, Chris Igoe, unknowingly caused his paralysis 10 years ago.

In Joe Soares, however, the intensity for the sport has mushroomed into an obsession that clouds his judgment. He feels so slighted after being cut from the U.S. team that he decides to coach Canada, earning the moniker “Benedict Arnold” from his former teammates. To his chagrin, his coaching approach does not apply to his son Robert, whom he wishes could take the form of one of his players. The energy and commitment he gives to murderball bends him to his breaking point.

These human dramas are book-ended by two games in which the U.S. plays Canada. Directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro capture the rowdy atmosphere that rivals that of a college basketball game, but the actual game footage does not allow the audience to feel like part of the action. First of all, it’s mainly shot at wheelchair level. This choice, though consistent with the rest of the film, does not allow plays to develop. A camera above the action would have helped. Furthermore, the footage contains a lot of quick-cutting and unnecessary slow-mo score-changing.

Despite being relative newcomers, Rubin and Shapiro handle this material evenhandedly by using close-ups sparingly, thus avoiding sentimentality. The camera constantly stays at wheelchair height serving a window into these lives, content to marvel at the resourcefulness of the players. It even goes as low as ground level, to show these men as the monuments of human adaptability that they are.

Since Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” documentaries have become more commonplace in multiplexes, as people learn of the potential these films have to inform. “Murderball” taps into that potential to make a great film on a little-known aspect of the human condition.

“Murderball” is playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.