If you’ve ever fallen out of your wheelchair, you’re probably familiar with the view from the floor. It offers a different perspective to consider a room: Couches look rather tall, socks that have disappeared for a few months lie in direct sight, or for Rupaszov — a former firefighter turned wheelchair-using hit man in the Hungarian action film Kills on Wheels — a tumble to the floor offers the perfect shooting angle to the bleach blond gangster he’s been tasked with eliminating.
The scene, in which Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy) is carried down a flight of stairs by a pair of burly body guards, before dispatching said body guards with a few well-placed bullets and finishing the job from the floor, is emblematic of Kills on Wheels as a whole: It’s fun, fast-paced, violent, and doesn’t shy away from an unvarnished depiction of the details of living with a disability.
Rupaszov’s superhero level shooting skills are contrasted with his escape from the same house: Pushing up a steep ramp he has to stop a few times to catch his breath and rest his arms. Whether or not he and his waiting apprentices, Zoli (Zoltán Fenyvesi) and Barba (Adám Fekete), are able to evade the police boils down to how quickly they are able to transfer to and from a car and break down their wheelchairs. It is not the quickest process. “I could fry an egg in less time, for fuck’s sake,” grumbles Rupaszov as Zoli fumbles to get the wheel onto his chair amidst the sound of blaring sirens.
The film centers on Zoli and Barba — two young men who are roommates in a group home for people with physical disabilities. Zoli has spina bifida, and Barba has cerebral palsy. Both come off as typical young folk. Zoli is constantly on his phone, listening to house music and worrying over social media posts, while Barba lives in a constant state of nerves over being prepared to “meet some chicks.”
The two collaborate on a complex graphic novel featuring themselves and Rupaszov, their surly creation, who recruits their comic doubles to help in his bloody work for Serbian crime boss Rados (Dusan Vitanovic). This story wraps around other narratives: Rupaszov trying to win back his ex-girlfriend (Lidia Danis) who is set to marry another man, Zoli’s need for thinly explained back surgery, and Rupaszov giving the young men a booze-laden education in life outside of a care facility. Kills on Wheels makes few distinctions between imagination and reality, but the editing and splicing of artwork from the graphic novel helps the story flow smoothly and without confusion.
Skewing Disability Sterotypes
Major media’s portrayal of disabled characters is often littered with clichés and stereotypes: Those with disabilities are either an inspiration, or to be pitied, motivated to overcome their disability, or somehow diminished because of it. It wouldn’t be surprising if Kills on Wheels fell into the “super-cripple” stereotype in the line of Avatar’s Jake Sully. But other than Rupaszov’s above average ability to aim and quickly fire a pistol from a seated position, the trio’s biggest superpower as hitmen appears to be society’s diminished expectations for them. Nobody expects someone in a wheelchair, or someone walking with a spastic gait, to be dangerous, so their guard never goes up. For an Eastern European gangster, this is exactly when you get capped. Rupaszov might not have the quickest draw in Hungary, but he is certainly allowed closer and given more time to operate than any nondisabled counterpart would be.
What is it like to know fully well what you’re capable of, and have society expect something else entirely? Writer-director Attila Till plays with that tension between experience and societal perception throughout the film. “They were surprised to see a crippled dick like you, huh?” jokes the less than eloquent Rados as he pays Rupaszov for a hit.
Till takes swipes at traditional disability stereotypes as well. Rupaszov is determined to walk again, but his quest amounts to little, and is a source of amusement for Zoli and Barba. In one scene, Rupaszov tries to slap Zoli while standing with leg braces in the parallel bars, and falls to the floor. “You’re doing great, I see,” Zoli deadpans while leaning over him. “Three years and you’ll be running.”
Of the three protagonists, only Rupaszov is played by a nondisabled actor. Both Fenyvesi and Fekete have the same disabilities as the characters they play. Fekete is a trained actor, writer and director, currently a member of the TAP Theater Company. Before this film, Fenyvesi had appeared on a Hungarian TV show, and was known primarily for his Instagram account, depicting life as a handsome young chair user. This was the first big-screen performance for either, and both were up to the task.
The film comes off as embedded within the local disability community, rather than having a token wheeler or two tacked onto a story. There are more extras with disabilities than any film I’ve ever seen. The adaptive equipment used is spot on. Zoli uses a Kuschall manual chair with Schwalbe tires. Zoli and Barba spend craft time at their group home to glue some old ROHO cushions together to form a pocket for Rupaszov to hide his gun for a hit. These kinds of details give an authenticity not often seen in film portrayals of disability. The cinematography even serves the cause, as many scenes are shot from chair-height perspective, rather than looking down at the protagonists.
My Money’s Worth
As a film, Kills on Wheels isn’t perfect. Zoli’s personal storyline centers on some sort of urgent back surgery, which he needs to stay alive. Zoli’s mom wants his estranged dad to pay for it, but Zoli refuses out of youthful pride. This part of the story feels strained, a bit clichéd and a missed opportunity for a more compelling narrative, but it does hint at a more interesting storyline: how Zoli processes his feelings toward the father he has never known through creating the graphic novel. Unfortunately, exploring that journey takes a back seat to the ostensibly more dramatic medical saga.
Likewise, Barba is interesting and funny, but the film doesn’t fully develop him as a character. Parts of the plot can feel a bit like a formulaic gangster movie, but there is original narrative woven in so that it never feels too stale. Members of the generation raised on Tarantino films are probably going to have a better stomach for the gory bits than those who grew up before graphic, gurgling violence became commonplace in film.
If Kills on Wheels isn’t a great film, it certainly is good. I’d come out of the theater feeling like I got my money’s worth. In talking with other NM staff who’d screened the movie, most of the critiques centered on plot and the level of violence, rather than the film’s portrayal of disability, which is a bit shocking considering we write about disability issues on a daily basis.
Kills on Wheels doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be revolutionary in its portrayal of disability, but it makes a whole-hearted attempt to be accurate and mostly succeeds. It’s a funny, enjoyable action film featuring well-developed protagonists with disabilities, giving screen time to two young actors who actually have disabilities. In today’s media landscape, that’s far enough out of the norm as to be revolutionary in itself.
Currently Kills on Wheels is only playing in selected theaters. It will be available via streaming in January.