Shooting a hole straight through the gut of the traditional narrative of empowerment, Atilla Till’s “Kills on Wheels” effectively does for hyper-violent gangster thrillers what “Murderball” did for inspirational sports documentaries. It starts with a brilliantly cockeyed premise: If the world doesn’t believe that disabled people are capable of living among us, then the police might never imagine that disabled people are capable of killing among us, either. From that idea, Till spins a sloppy but uproariously clever urban fable, one that doesn’t sanctify or belittle the handicapped, but rather shines new light on that invisible population by inviting them to play the most visible of movie archetypes: assassins.
Janos Rupaszov (able-bodied Hungarian star Szabolcs Thuróczy, recently seen in last year’s “White God”) is a salty middle-aged badass unlike any the cinema has known before. On one hand, he’s a classic archetype: The beefy, aging gangster who’s fresh out of jail and already eager to get back into trouble. On the other hand, the authorities consider the wheelchair-bound Rupaszov to be more of a nuisance than he is a legitimate harm to society. He’s a joke, a pet of the prison system whose insistence that he’ll walk again (“I’ll get robot legs, a robot dick, whatever”) makes him even more of a laughingstock. If only the cops knew what he was capable of getting away with — if only they knew what Rados (Dusan Vitanovics), a broadly evil Yugoslavian crime boss, was paying Rupaszov to do.
Rupaszov is a fighter, introduced doing pull-ups in his wheelchair and soon revealed to be as tenacious as the last greasy strings of hair that cling to his scalp, but there’s no doubt that he’s also something of a tragic character — especially once we’re introduced to his newly engaged ex. He’s lonely. He needs friends. Better yet, he needs accomplices. Enter Zoli (Zoltan Fenyvesi) and Barba (Adam Fekete), twenty-something roommates whose severe disabilities have made them codependent.
There’s a sweetly comic “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” dynamic between these two: Zoli, whose spinal progressive spinal condition has made his legs undeveloped and unusable, has the steady hands required to draw the comic books they write about themselves. Barba, whose palsy is more obvious but less centralized, can still drive a (getaway) car. Both kids need money, and — while refreshingly resigned to the subtext — both need something to live for.
The volatile partnership formed between the three outcasts is the same you’ve seen in a million other movies about a gruff older man learning to care for his proteges (“The Professional” comes to mind), and Till sacrifices clarity and emotional depth in his attempts to avoid any moments that might feel too soft or saccharine.
He needn’t have worried, as the casting alone layers “Kills on Wheels” with a bedrock of honesty that could have allowed for a much greater degree of drama. Fenyvesi and Fekete both have disabilities that cannot be acted or faked with prosthetics (Till found Fenyvesi via the first-time actor’s Instagram), and while both of their performances are flawlessly convincing, they’re also enhanced by a meta-textual degree of wish fulfillment.
It’s unlikely that either of these amateur performers ever imagined starring in a mainstream movie (mainstream for the Hungarian box office, anyway), let alone one involving suspenseful action sequences that have no special regard for their condition. Till’s script never treats the performers with kid gloves, nor does the camera ever condescend to them — unlike “The Tribe,” which repurposed the insularity of Ukraine’s deaf community as the silent lining of a dark underworld, “Kills on Wheels” even allows for a few laughs, and Till insists that his jokes only further empower his characters.
When a rival gangster tries to assert his dominance by stabbing Rupaszov in the leg, our rugged hero doesn’t feel a thing. When Rupaszov and his cohorts brazenly execute an assassination in broad daylight, the police barely look at the “invalids” long enough for Zoli to point them in the wrong direction. It’s funny stuff, every gag anchored to the idea that these handicaps might as well be superpowers.
In a way, the elements that weaken the story are the same ones that make it more empowering. Till has no time for morality — Zoli and Barba are involved with several murders, and no one blinks an eye since the victims are all bad guys — but the able-bodied version of this film wouldn’t have bothered with that stuff, either.
If anything, Till is so committed to delivering an ordinary story of criminals and lowlifes that his unique characters fade into archetypes, and the impact of their separate arcs is muted and muddled as the strangely familiar plot shifts into neutral. It’s as though Till is so worried about the film being defined by its “gimmick” that he overcompensates by steering it towards cliché. Still, by taking things to such a giddy extreme, “Kills on Wheels” manages to punctuate its point with a bullet: If the able-bodied world refuses to see the handicapped as people, what right do we have to brand them as criminals?
“Kills on Wheels” is playing this week at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.