For those of us who are constantly on the lookout for movies which offer something we haven’t seen before, a Hungarian hitman thriller in which the central protagonists are disabled is most definitely a novel proposition. Writer-director Attila Till’s Kills on Wheels (AKA Tiszta Szívvel) offers up just this, and – as was perhaps inevitable – it’s one of the most unique black comedy thrillers you’re likely to see in this year or any other. It’s rare indeed that the disabled are made the focal point of a relatively mainstream-friendly film, and in those rare instances it’s always with the caveat of being a worthy, sensitive, thought-provoking drama, more often than not with able-bodied actors putting on affectations. Here, we have two genuinely disabled, and genuinely talented lead actors in Zoltán Fenyvesi and Ádám Fekete – and while the ensuing film certainly isn’t without its sensitive and thought-provoking elements, it’s also refreshingly hard-edged. Our protagonists are all very much sick and tired of being on the receiving end of everyone’s pity, and Kills on Wheels isn’t afraid to present them as flawed, angry, and often unsympathetic; simply put, presenting them as – well – human beings. Gasp.
Zolika (Fenyvesi) and Barba Papa (Fekete) are two young friends living an unfulfilling life in a rehabilitation centre. Both talented artists, they have dreams of breaking into the comics business, but little prospect of changing their lot on life. Zoli in particular faces a grim future, as a life-threatening condition requires expensive surgery – but he steadfastly refuses to accept the money for the procedure from the father who walked out on him and his mother years earlier. However, things change dramatically when a newcomer arrives at their clinic, Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy). A former firefighter who suffered a paralysing injury in the line of duty several years previous, Rupaszov hasn’t necessarily adapted all that well to life in a wheelchair, having spent some time behind bars. While his take-no-shit attitude initially sees him come to blows with our young leads, he soon warms to the duo and takes them under his wing – but things take a somewhat sinister turn when Zoli and Barba inadvertently cross paths with Rupaszov while he’s at work, doing hits for a local Serbian crime boss. Soon enough, Zoli and Barba are earning some cash on the side helping Rupaszov out on his assignments, but it doesn’t take long for the perils of a life of crime catch up with them.
Ostensibly, Kills on Wheels would seem to merge issue-based kitchen sink drama with the low budget gangster movie; two genres which, as a general rule of thumb, I tend not to be particularly interested in. However, I was won over by its frankness and lack of sentimentality. Fenyvesi, who I’ve since come to understand is something of an Instagram celebrity, is really quite a compelling lead, whose disability does nothing to diminish his obvious charisma and classic good looks. There’s a fascinating scene in which he takes a selfie to post on a dating site which only shows himself from the waist up; one of many moments in the film dedicated to confronting the hardships and challenging preconceptions about those living with handicaps. And Kills on Wheels keeps things almost exclusively from the perspective of the disabled leads, with the able bodied characters – most notably Zoli’s mother (Monika Balsai) and Rupaszov’s ex-girlfriend (Lidia Danis)- very much there in a supporting capacity.
Of course it’s an odd blend, but that was always a given. While the crime thriller aspects up the odds of mass appeal, in truth these are for the most part secondary to the character-based drama, but even so there are a number of surprisingly thrilling set-pieces, offset with a macabre sense of humour; witness Rupaszov single-handedly gunning down a roomful of gangsters, then struggling to escape up a moderate slope. No, the film doesn’t make fun of its protagonists’ ailments, but it doesn’t deny the inherent absurdity of the scenario.
Sad to say, a lot of this is perhaps undermined by a curious climactic twist which, naturally, I’m not about to reveal; though it is clearly signposted throughout, it’s a final reveal which strikes me as a little misguided. Even so, Kills on Wheels is is well worth a look, and serves as a decent reminder that providing entertainment and promoting a worthy message are by no means mutually exclusive impulses in film (although Get Out already hammered that home pretty well earlier this year).
Kills on Wheels is in select cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 15th September, from Eureka Entertainment.