J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Kills on Wheels: Hungary Delivers Plenty of Attitude, but No Cliches

Working as a hired killer is a heck of a way to build up self-worth, but at least the wheelchair-bound Zoli has finally found something that engages him. He suffers from a progressive curvature of the spine that will eventually kill him without corrective surgery, but his refuses to accept his absentee father’s guilt money. Perhaps he and his roommate Barba will be able to fund the procedure themselves when they start assisting Rupaszov, a professional killer recently paralyzed from the waist down. Nobody sees them coming, except maybe Rupaszov’s double-crossing client in Attila Till’s Kills on Wheels (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Zoli’s mother tries to sugarcoat it, but he knows his father walked out soon after he was born to avoid dealing with him. Like a Dostoevskian character, he would rather implode on his own terms rather than take scraps from the table of the well-to-do father he has never met. However, there could be an alternative, thanks to the arrival of Janos Rupaszov at their assisted living facility.

Before his injury, Rupszov was a fireman, but he now works as an assassin for Rados, a Serbian gangster out to eliminate an entire rival gang, man by man. Initially, Rupaszov cuts through them at a blistering clip. After all, nobody considers a man in a wheelchair to be any kind of threat, so guards are down around him. Of course, as the hits get more complicated, he needs a handful of assistants like Zoli and Barba, who happen to be equally invisible to the man on the street. Aside from the semi-autobiographic but highly exaggerated comic book Zoli’s is writing with Barba, his work with Rupaszov is about the only thing that will get him to stop moping around their room.

Throughout Kills, Till walks a fine line with the agility of a Flying Wallenda. He definitely delivers the edgy, dark humor the very premise promises, but the film never feels exploitative. In fact, Till’s screenplay sneaks up on viewers emotionally coldcocking them in the third act. Hungary isn’t exactly the most progressive nation on Earth these days, which might heighten some viewers’ wariness. Yet, Till has probably produced the year’s smartest, most sophisticated film about comparative abilities. Frankly, Hollywood and Western Europe do not have the gumption to make such an honest, in-your-face film, so it is up to the couldn’t-give-a-damn Orban-era Hungary to blast away our self-serving clichés.

Drawing from their real-life experiences, Zoltán Fenyvesi and Ádám Fekete play Zoli and Barba like complicated characters rather than symbols. Indeed, they are completely and utterly believable teenagers: ill-mannered, uncouth, and generally preoccupied with girls. As Rupaszov, Szabolcs Thuróczy’s magnetic screen presence compliments them nicely. On the other side of the coin, Dusán Vitanovics is entertainingly sinister as the absolutely, positively irredeemable Rados.

There is no cheap sentiment in Kills, but Till still manages to earn a little the hard way. That might sabotage the ending for hardcore cynics out there, but they can’t fault the gutsy build-up. Recommended more for people who don’t think they’ll like it rather than those who do, Kills on Wheels opens tomorrow (10/20) in New York, at the Village East.

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