'Murderball' Offers Raw Look at Life in a Wheelchair

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NPR's Bob Mondello reviews Murderball, a new documentary about the U.S. Paralympic Rugby team. The film offers a honest and raw look at the fierce — and inspiring — group of disabled competitors.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

One of the least likely hits on the film festival circuit the last few months has been an extreme sports documentary called, "Murderball." It's about the US Paralympic rugby team.

(Soundbite of "Murderball")

Unidentified Man #1: Tell me about wheelchair rugby.

Unidentified Man #2: It used to be called murderball. But you can't really market murderball to corporate sponsors.

LUDDEN: Maybe not, but Bob Mondello says you can market "Murderball" to movie audiences when the film is as good as this one.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

A documentary about the US Paralympic rugby team, quadriplegic rugby players in wheelchairs. I know what you're thinking; that it's going to be one of those triumph and uplift sagas that go for tears and sympathy. Right? Well, you know those bumper stickers that say: `Rugby players eat their dead'? Well, that's apparently no less true when the rugby players are in wheelchairs.

(Soundbite of "Murderball")

Unidentified Man #3: Pass it! Pass it! Pass it! Oh!

MONDELLO: This is a very competitive bunch wheeling down a modified basketball court, crashing into each other in armored chairs that look like something out of the "Mad Max," "Road Warrior" movies. They are ferocious, athletic and deeply resentful of Joe Soares, a long-time US all-star who has a roomful of trophies but who got a little older and a little slower and lost his spot on the team and, they figure, betrayed them.

(Soundbite of "Murderball")

Unidentified Man #4: Because things didn't work out for him, he jumped ship and left to go up north and now he's coaching Team Canada.

(Soundbite of "Murderball")

Unidentified Man #5: ...two, three!

Unidentified Man #6: Canada! Yeah!

Unidentified Man #4: When he took the plays with him, he took some of our calls with him. So he'd know when to attack and how to attack.

(Soundbite of "Murderball")

Unidentified Man #7: USA, learn a new way!

Unidentified Man #8: If Joe was on the side of the road on fire I wouldn't piss on him to put it out.

(Soundbite of "Murderball")

Unidentified Man #7: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

MONDELLO: Not exactly a warm and cuddly bunch. If Soares is sort of the villain of the piece--unless, of course, you're Canadian--Mark Zupan, a tattooed, goateed, often-profane guy, probably qualifies as the hero.

(Soundbite of "Murderball")

Unidentified Man #9: Watch Zupan! Watch Zupan! Watch Zupan!

MONDELLO: He's aggressive on the field, but proves to have a heart off it, which is to say that the film doesn't restrict itself to the sporting activities of the players. The directors talk to them about how their lives have changed, and they don't sugarcoat the answers. The dismayed reaction of one guy just home from the hospital when he sees how his folks have made his room wheelchair accessible will haunt you for days.

On the other hand, none of these guys wants pity. In fact, they seem actively annoyed when people feel sorry for them, though they're not above using it to their advantage to, say, pick up girls at which they seem singularly successful.

(Soundbite of "Murderball")

SCOTT: You know, like, everyone's like, `What's your approach, Scott? How do you work these women?' Man, I'm like, `The more pitiful I am, the more the women like me.'

Unidentified Man #10: The girls are interested, you know--if they really like you, there is one question that pops in their head pretty quick. But they don't want to come out and say it.

Unidentified Man #11: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #10: So they'll start with like, `Oh, you know, how did you get hurt?'

Unidentified Women: So you can't move your arms?

Unidentified Man #12: Yeah, I can move them.

Unidentified Man #10: But see, it takes about 10 to 20 minutes of working that chick, and then she finally drops the bomb, you know. Can you do it?

Unidentified Women: Is it dead?

Unidentified Man #12: No, it's all still very, very good.

Unidentified Man #13: I think everyone here ding, ding, dinging, whew-hoo!

MONDELLO: Getting to know these guys and then watching them get themselves up for the World Paralympic Championships where they face their archrival, Team Canada, is as engaging and as thrilling as any sports movie you'll have seen. I know, I know, wheelchair rugby. You think I'm doing some special pleading here. I'm really not. "Murderball" is such a good story that it's bound to get the full Hollywood treatment some day, and there's just no way that it'll be as tough and as true and as uncorny as it is in this documentary. "Murderball" is a blast.

I'm Bob Mondello.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, the story of Doris Walker Woodson. Her mother was a live-in domestic worker at a time when working conditions split up families, separating mothers who were maids and cooks from their children.

Ms. DORIS WALKER WOODSON: The only time they would have off would be Thursday after breakfast and after you cleaned up the kitchen, you know. So it was usually 1:00 before you got off.

LUDDEN: Listen in tomorrow to hear the story of one daughter who's reconnected with the mother she barely knew by getting involved in the house where her mother once worked.

And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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