The adolescent machismo of Kills on Wheels, which chronicles the exploits of a wheelchair-bound hitman, announces itself through rock-music cues that accompany every successful assassination. Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy), working as a hired gun for a Serbian mobster (Dusan Vitanovic), proves effective at his job, and in a variety of locations, because no one suspects that a paraplegic could be an assassin. In an early scene when four toughs mock and dismiss Rupaszov because he’s in a wheelchair, he draws a gun inside a plastic grocery bag and quickly shoots all of the men. Lest the moment register as a weighty instance of violence, writer-director Attila Till immediately drops electric guitar cords onto the soundtrack and frames Rupaszov’s bloody hit as the first in a series of his arsenal of badassery.
That image, of Rupaszov becoming something like an avenger for the disabled, is forced to bear the weight of Till’s entire premise—a slim conceit that places Rupaszov and two other physically challenged protégées within an otherwise generic actioner. The story begins with Zoli (Zoltán Fenyvesi), a resident at a physical therapy care center in Budapest. He needs money for an operation, and rather than accept the funds from his distant father, he collaborates with Barba (Adám Fekete), another resident, to write and sell a graphic novel about a fireman who becomes a paraplegic (and crime fighter) after an accident. Enter Rupaszov, who’s fresh out of a prison stint where he spent mornings doing seated pull-ups to ready himself for the physical demands of a job on the outside. After the trio crosses paths in a back alley, Zoli and Barba become Rupaszov’s accomplices as research for their work.
Till conveys Rupaszov’s status as a real-life version of the boys’ fiction through a series of animated interludes that link their imaginations to reality in ways that initially indicate how notions of delighting in one’s own self, whether through dancing, sex, or “kicking ass,” are often culturally rendered through abled instances of bodily discovery. In essence, when Zoli kicks back some shots of vodka in a club, it’s only because Rupaszov, with his tough-guy persona, has convinced security to set them up in a VIP booth. Thus, Zoli literally tastes the life that his chair has previously kept him out of. It’s a keen moment of insight into what compels youthful ideas of fun and energy, especially when access to those possibilities is limited by physical disability.
Yet, Till’s script abruptly abandons these more considered possibilities for the generic fodder of a shoot-’em-up, with Rupaszov dispensing more bullets than wisdom. The action sequences lack kinetic movement or tonal specificity, including a later scene where Rupaszov shoots a man in a crowded downtown area. As the shots ring out, nearby security peruses the adjacent high-rises for a shooter. When they spot Rupaszov, he’s throwing food to pigeons. The visual gag only partially lands because Till hasn’t made it clear why Rupaszov’s disability rules him out as a suspect. There’s a cutting critique to be made here about the tendency of able-bodied people to condescend toward the disabled and dismiss their humanity in the process, but Till is content to consistently indulge a more complication-free mix of bloodshed and pathos.
Kills on Wheels’s end reveal casts its preceding events into a different light, asking us to reconsider what we’ve seen in relation to Zoli and Barba’s graphic novel. But the potential to examine comic-book lore as a questionable complement to adolescent desire eludes Till, who favors having Zoli neatly reconcile the psychological toll of his disability with the fact of his estrangement from his father. While the film’s shell suggests a wilder reconfiguration of genre conventions, the path it pursues finally deals in tidy family drama, and proves incompatible with the thornier matter of why violent retribution persists as the dominant male fantasy in response to trauma.