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'Murderball' is a triumph of the competitive spirit

Mark Zupan doesn't want your pity. He doesn't even want your sympathy. All he wants is for you to watch him crush the competition on the court and to say ''That is one hell of an athlete." By the end of ''Murderball," you have come to understand that he's quite a bit more, and his isn't the only such portrait this tough, terse, funny, ribald, and heartbreaking documentary -- easily one of the best films of the year -- has to offer.

''Murderball" is a paradox: a movie about quadriplegics that insists we look beyond their disability. Directed by Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin, it follows a group of US quad rugby players from the 2002 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, where they're narrowly beaten by Canada, to a high-stakes rematch at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. It's also a portrait of how competitive drive can be sharpened rather than dulled by physical adversity -- occasionally to damaging effect.

To clear up some initial confusion: A quadriplegic by definition has physical impairment in all four limbs (paraplegia affects only two), but the level of paralysis varies and is measured on a scale of .5 (almost no movement) to 3. The combatants -- excuse me, players -- in quad rugby have enough use of their arms to propel their wheelchairs, careening into one another at high speeds in an attempt to score goals. The chairs look like leftover props from ''Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," the players' gloves are covered with glue, and the point, according to one rugger, is to ''basically kill the man with the ball." Helmets? They're for weenies.

For all the thunder and dented steel, much of ''Murderball" takes place off the court, in the sometimes harrowing, sometimes just-fine-thanks lives of the players. Zupan has rightly been tagged as the film's breakout star, and with his warrior's stare and stiff blond goatee, he's like a hacky-sack slacker who has been invested by misfortune with grace and charisma. The other players are almost as indelible: the deceptively easygoing Andy Cohn, the hard-partying Scott Hogsett, newly injured Keith Cavill -- if this were a war movie, he'd be The Kid -- and the astonishing Bob Lujano, a quadruple amputee who has played quad rugby for 10 years and has the gold medals and a blessing from a pope to prove it.

Then there's Joe Soares. A former US championship player who crossed over to the dark side to coach the Canadian team, he's first seen in ''Murderball" taunting his former teammates as they lose the 2002 championships. (They respond just as venomously: ''How's it feel to betray your country, man?") Soares also plays competitive wheelchair tennis and basketball and in general suggests Rudy Giuliani crossed with a heavily caffeinated pit bull. He's as type A as they come -- he has a heart attack during the course of the film, and it barely seems to knock him over -- and his paralysis seems merely to have opened up new avenues for compensatory aggression.

The filmmakers don't bear down too hard on the ironies of Soares's home life -- he's a pushy sports dad whose trophy wall is bigger than his resolutely non-jock son's -- but they don't have to. Even Soares figures it out, given time. ''Murderball" expends most of its off-court energies on the players' back stories, their early depressions and ensuing defiance, and their demand that we take them as semiprofessional athletes rather than curiosities.

They're also young men with all the attendant lusts. The directors show us the pleasures and absurdities of this aspect of their lives -- Zupan's mordantly sexy girlfriend, a rehabilitation video called ''Sexuality Reborn" that's as campy as it is necessary -- and it also shows the one aspect of their personalities that has changed since their respective accidents. Almost to a man (that ''almost" being Soares), they've become less self-absorbed and more willing to care for others -- their ''disability" has enriched them in ways they could never have predicted.

At the same time, of course, it's a full-time drag, and ''Murderball" expertly balances the inspirational with day-to-day struggle. Zupan tells a roomful of kids, ''I've done more in a wheelchair than I have able-bodied." Cavill, meanwhile, comes home to a house newly outfitted with ramps and says, ''I'm in a wheelchair. This sucks."

The film's penultimate scenes are quiet and devastatingly emotional, and they take their unexpected strength from that admission of darkness. And then ''Murderball" moves on, as it must, to show us Zupan and company playing an exhibition game for wounded Iraq War vets -- terribly young, they're the latest wave of The Kids -- and to hint that the players' real work has only begun.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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