While Hollywood pays lip service to a call for diversity in front of and behind the camera, the engaging Hungarian dramedy “Kills On Wheels” proves that action speaks louder than words. In his sophomore feature, helmer-writer Attila Till puts a new spin on the term “differently abled” with this tale of two twentysomethings from a Budapest rehab center who enter a new realm when they become involved with a wheelchair-bound hitman. Although the English-language title is technically accurate, it doesn’t suggest the picture’s depth and nuance, nor the fact that it is really a coming-of-age story. (The more evocative Hungarian title translates as “From The Bottom Of My Heart.”) With two physically disabled performers winningly portraying the young leads, the film has been charming Magyar audiences since April and is still in cinemas. Marketing savvy and critical appreciation could lead this festival hit to some kind of specialized distribution offshore; meanwhile, the concept is ripe for a remake.
Zoli (Zoltán Fenyvesi) and Barba (Adám Fekete) are roommates at a care facility. The former relies on a wheelchair because of spinal problems, while the latter has a mild case of cerebral palsy and the peculiar habit of spraying deodorant on the outside of his clothes when he becomes excited and nervous. When they work together on a high-concept graphic novel about a paraplegic former fireman, life and art start to blur in intriguing ways as they interact with their protagonist.
Their creation is badass ex-firefighter Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy, whose hangdog charisma also made an impression in “The Wednesday Child” and “White God”), who sustained an injury on the job that has left him paralyzed below the waist. After a stint in prison, Rupaszov finds new employment as a hitman for sinister Serbian crime lord Rados (Dusan Vitanovic) while trying to win back his ex-girlfriend (Lidia Danis), a nurse who is about to marry another man. Flush with cash from his new profession, he provides the lads with an, er, sentimental education as well as life lessons. He also offers them an opportunity to demonstrate their resourcefulness as his accomplices.
Throughout the film, director-writer Till cleverly plays with the fact that people frequently underestimate those they perceive as handicapped. The prime illustration of that notion comes in a tense set piece unfolding in a picturesque Budapest square. Pretending to feed the pigeons, Rupaszov patiently awaits the perfect moment to assassinate a slick lawyer who is lunching with his bodyguards at a nearby café. After paying the bill, the target strides through the crowded square. A shot rings out, the man falls, but no one even looks askance at the rumpled, stringy-haired guy in the wheelchair.
As the hits that Rados requests become increasingly difficult, Rupaszov relies more and more on the ingenuity and level-headedness of Zoli and Barba; Barba’s driving skill as a getaway man also plays a crucial role. Meanwhile, the hitman and comic-book storylines eventually neatly merge with a subplot centering on Zoli’s need for a life-saving operation — one his single mother (Mónika Balsai) hopes will be paid for by the father that abandoned the family when Zoli was just an infant.
Unlike the recent, controversial tearjerker “Me Before You,” where the paralyzed lead character is drawn to euthanasia, “Kills On Wheels” champions the idea that life should be lived to the fullest. Director-writer Till’s screenplay was inspired by his volunteer work with the disabled and the film benefits from his knowledge, sensitive direction, and the casting of non-pros with physical disabilities in parts large and small. A big-screen natural, handsome Fenyvesi is an activist student and Instagram star who completed the New York marathon on his handbike in 2014, while Fekete, who trained as a dramaturge, is a member of TAP Theater Company currently working as an actor-writer-director, and writes poetry to boot. Per the director, a long rehearsal period and good chemistry with Hungarian theater, film and small-screen star Thuróczy helped the younger men to pick up the nuances of film acting and their able-bodied elder to be convincing as a paraplegic.
The inventive cinematography by Imre Juhász (who also works as a camera operator and second unit on big-budget Hollywood titles) is frequently framed to match the perspective of someone in a wheelchair. Editor Márton Gothár does a fine job of blending the various storylines, as well as the segues from hand-drawn art and animation to live action. The score by Csaba Kalotás and choice soundtrack add to the dynamism.