Kills on Wheels is a re-naming for English markets of a film, the second from Hungarian writer-director Attila Till, whose original Hungarian title, Tiszta Szívvel, translates as Pure Heart. A comedy action-drama that actually has heart, and is entirely character-based, is a rare thing in of itself, but, as is being foregrounded much more prominently by the English title than by the film’s Hungarian moniker, this one stands out in particular for showcasing a cast of young paraplegics and people with disabling mobility issues as the main protagonists, forging a plot where traditional gangster and action movie motifs are spun into a poignant but non-patronising examination of the sorts of issues of identity and acceptance apt to preoccupy any young teen on the cusp of adulthood, but which have even more resonance for those who daily face the challenges imposed by physical impediments and life-threatening health issues to boot.
But the opening scene is also designed to provide opportunities for Till to signpost early that he in no way intends this to be an exercise in po-faced sentimental 'misery-mongering' that scores brownie points by portraying persons with physical disabilities as saintly martyrs or token objects of inspiration for the able-bodied. It’s a prison scene of a kind familiar to pretty much all prison movies -- with gnarly looking cons eyeing each other up for exploitable weaknesses in the prison recreation room while pensive guards monitor them for signs of the outbreak we know is coming eventually anyway. In this instance, though, the camera gradually pans out to reveal that every single one of the prisoners is, in fact, a wheelchair user; only the prison guards patrolling them are able-bodied. As the inevitable riot-on-wheels erupts before us, we’re being reminded -- as we also were by Miroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s 2014 movie The Tribe, in which the entire cast was made up of deaf performers -- that, although people with a common disability placed together in a regime administered by the able-bodied creates a unique culture, the resultant community will tend, of course, to be made up of just as diverse and flawed a collection of individuals as any other group would be.
At the centre of this eruption of explosive tension is ex-firefighter-turned-petty-criminal Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy), who we next see leaving the prison grounds at the end of his sentence in yet another scene that is a mainstay of the prison movie subgenre: the one in which the ex-prisoner suddenly finds himself alone outside the imposing walls of his former temporary home, realising that he has now been cut off from the institutional support network that once sustained him, as he's thrust back into an uncaring outside world. Here, Rupaszov is immediately taken under the wing of a trackie-wearing Serbian mobster boss who breeds Rottweilers, called Rados (Dusán Vitanovic). He puts Rupaslov straight to work in the unlikely role of gangland hitman, with the rationale that the goons and gangster bosses he’s to be sent to 'off' will never suspect a guy in a wheelchair – a view that soon proves itself profitably correct.
Although the movie starts with Rupaszov's tale, and looks set to go off down a Tarantino-esque road that puts smart dialogue and extreme violence on an equal footing with deliberately unrealistic, semi-comic action scenarios like the opening scene, the film in fact switches focus pretty quickly and takes us instead into the world of two young disabled friends who, like Rupaszov, have also been institutionalised, although in rather different surroundings. Instead of a prison that caters exclusively for the disabled, Zolika (Zoltán Fenyvesi) and Barba (Ádám Fekete) frequent a rehabilitation centre providing treatment, physical therapy and daily activities for young people like themselves who have a range of physicalities that restrict mobility and/or are difficult to deal with at home. Both actors actually have for real the conditions their featured characters are depicted living with: Zoli is paralysed because of a congenital spinal malformation, and, in the movie, also urgently needs a life-saving operation to support his spine and stop his organs being crushed, a likely result of the condition worsening in later life; Barba, meanwhile, although not paralysed in the same way, finds it difficult to walk or to exercise full control of his limbs. Both boys are fed up with the dull, humdrum routine that is apparently to be their lot while living under a day-care regime offering little to expand one’s horizons, despite the sincere dedication of its staff. They instead have to make do with silly acts of minor vandalism to pass the time. They are also writing and producing their own graphic novel in art class which they hope to sell at a local comics con, detailing in comic-strip form their daily struggles.
The boys meet Rupaszov when he visits the centre to undergo physical therapy. The former firefighter is offended when he spots them messing about with a fire extinguisher in the yard. The relationship is initially fraught with tension but gradually softens, and there emerges a touching bond between the three outsiders, casting Rupaszov first in the role of older brother and confidant to the boys, and then as a sort of surrogate father figure. The raspy-voiced hitman takes them on various expeditions that force the boys to venture far beyond the safe confines of the world they’d previously known. For instance, hanging with Rupaszov teaches the callow duo how to act confidently in the company of women when visiting bars and flashy nightclubs. They also accompany him as he embarks on various hope-filled but ill-fated efforts to woo a nurse he’d previously been involved with who is now imminently to be married -- a plot strand that culminates with a raucous gate-crashing of the couple's wedding reception.
Much of this is standard coming-of-age comedy-drama material, rendered all the more affecting for the pleasantly engaging performances Fenyvesi and Fekete are able to deliver as these two guileless teenagers who end up way out of their depth. Fenyvesi conveys an insular angst but is quietly soulful, while Fekete's character is the more boisterous, geeky and freewheeling of the pair. The suspense and action-drama elements of the film arise when a bewildered Zoli and Barba find themselves suddenly caught up in one of Rupaszov’s hits, pulled into the fray as make-do getaway drivers. When crime lord Rados discovers their unscheduled involvement, he demands that Rupaszov bump off the two boys to make sure all remaining loose ends are tied up, thus placing the hitman in an unenviably difficult position.
Broken family ties and imperfect friendships are at the heart of a mercurial tale that largely lands in the sweet spot between wry comedy and gritty drama. A subplot, centred on Zoli’s refusal to let his estranged father help his long-suffering mother out with the payment for his urgently needed operation, is at the emotional heart of the story and the feelings of betrayal and rejection which lie at the core of his characterisation also resurface in the main storyline, with Rupaszov agonising over a seemingly unthinkable dilemma during an initially comedic fishing expedition with the boys that provides him with the perfect opportunity to comply with Rados’s demand to get rid of them. The crime boss himself also acts as something of a father substitute for his hitman charge (with Rados’s dogs referred to by him throughout as his ‘children’), while the jobs Rupaszov is sent on involve him severing ‘family ties’ for Rados with various foreign gang lords.
Till’s direction is fluid and his shots nicely composed, even incorporating animation into scene transitions in order to illustrate how the events of the film relate to the content of Zoli and Barba’s home-made graphic novel. The score incorporates rootsy urban folk songs and the witty script features caustic dialogue aplenty, particularly when Rupaszov chastises his slow-moving, frequently hapless accomplices as they, say, wrestle with trying to hold a pair of binoculars steady during a stake-out, or take ages unfolding a wheelchair to escape in after the completion of a job -- police sirens all the while wailing in the distance and getting ever-louder as they continue their struggle.
Till is not averse to using the protagonists’ disabilities in this way to generate both absurdist comic moments (although never at his heroes’ expense) and instances of taut suspense. The latter quality is particularly notable during a protracted set-piece which sees Rupaszov faced with a houseful of heavily armed and intensely suspicious gangsters. Afterwards, in attempting to find a wheelchair-friendly exit from the dwelling, he is forced to negotiate a yard with an extremely steep, upward-sloping pathway to the front gate, resulting in what is likely to be the most painfully snail-like getaway in the history of movies!
The film’s resolution, after a tense confrontation with Rados and his canine companions, comes in the form of a pseudo-twist of sorts that is, in truth, so flagrantly signposted it’s probably not even meant to be a twist -- although the final act does also reveal one further poignant wrinkle to the plot regarding the thematic concerns which underpin the film and connect Zolika’s resentment towards his absent father for leaving him and his mother to his ambivalent feelings about Rupaszov, in a way that is both satisfying and life-affirming.
This likeable dark comedy is released by Eureka Entertainment in a dual format form, incorporating Blu-ray and DVD formats, as part of its new Montage Pictures range.