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Kills on Wheels
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by Jay Seaver

"A crime story that keeps things rolling."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: One can look at "Kills on Wheels" as extremely high-concept or just simply a film about an extremely-underserved audience, and a great deal of its success is in how it moves from being the first to the second: Someone can come in based on the pitch of wheelchair-bound hitmen and come out quite fond of the characters as people and not hugely concerned with their missions. The combination makes some generic crime material fresh and adds excitement to what could be very self-serious and earnest.

Much of the action takes place around a rehabilitation center where Zolika (Zoltán Fenyvesi) and Barba Papa (Ádám Fekete) have spent much of their young lives - Barba with what appears to be cerebral palsy, Zoli with a worsening curvature of the spine that will, within a few years, crush his internal organs. An expensive operation in Berlin could help, and Zoli's father (who now lives there) is willing to pay for it, but Zoli is reluctant to accept charity from the man who abandoned him and his mother Zita (Mónika Balsai) when he was small. Another option may be appearing, though - newcomer Janos Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy) is just out of prison and doing odd jobs for Serbian gangster Rados (Dusán Vitanovics), and a share of the money he'll pay for eliminating rivals could certainly help. Of course, Rados doesn't exactly want more people knowing about the details of his activities, and that's without knowing about the indie comics Zoli and Barba are making based upon their adventures.

Kills on Wheels is noteworthy in that the majority of its handicapped characters are played by actors with the same physical challenges, and as such it winds up being very conscientious of what those entail. There's no pushing through something because that's what the story wants even if it's not actually likely, for instance, and difficult things are presented as everyday challenges. Writer/director Attila Till takes care to let the subtext of being handicapped inform a lot of the characterization without often resorting to monologues and direct explanations; Rupaszov's anger and confrontational nature is likely different from Zoli's in large part because he lost the use of his legs rather than never having it, and he's more likely to blame the rest of the world for things than himself. Much of these characters' stories is left to the audience to extrapolate, and it's not hard.

Till and company appear to hit on such genuine material (assuming that I can be much of a judge of that as a non-disabled person) that it can be easy to overlook how it is also a comic-book-inspired crime picture, and there are some charmingly off-kilter things that might get talked up more in a less sincere-seeming movie: It opens with Rupaszov being in the middle of a brawl in an all-handicapped prison ward, for instance - does Hungary have enough felons in wheelchairs for this to be a thing? Similarly, the dogs that Rados keeps around are not just an affectation; there's a great scene involving a very specific bit of training that if nothing else gave a unique bit of texture to a crime story that would be wholly unremarkable if nobody was in a wheelchair or scooter.

Still, that is often just a smoke screen that gives the audience opportunity to study Zoli as he wrestles with the idea of accepting charity from his long-absent father, even if the alternative is a likely death sentence. It's interesting, conflicted work that might have been one-note in the foreground, but works well there, with newcomer Zoltán Fenyvesi offsetting the intense resentment Zoli contains with more than just good looks; his anger has a flip side of loyalty and drive - and, occasionally, being able to enjoy a simple pleasure - giving the impression that if he's not about to explode, it's in large part because he's made of stronger stuff. He's got an amiable sidekick in Ádám Fekete's Barba, who comes across as an amiable fellow who seems like he has come to own the crooked grin and unusual gait that nature gave him, showing a quieter determination than the other characters and low-key charm. Szabolcs Thuróczy mines dark humor from Rupaszov's blustery nature; often charged with pushing well-earned anger past what's useful, he seldom winds up with a line falling in the wrong place. It might be nice if there were a little more for women to do in this movie; Mónika Balsai gets to be a patient and supportive mother while Lídia Danis plays a patient and supportive ex-girlfriend, while the therapists at the center are fairly explicitly dismissed.

There are a couple of other blind spots in the movie - the end can feel a little deflating, although it works well enough emotionally that I suspect a second run through might reveal a few more things pointing in that direction and less-than-obvious parallels and make everything click a little more solidly into place. Even if it doesn't, "Kills on Wheels" is still an enjoyably unique crime picture with a distinctive, enjoyable cast of characters who are memorable for more than being under-seen.

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originally posted: 08/11/17 04:58:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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