Subterranean Society 

Budapest subway system is out of Kontroll

The subway trains don't just run on time in the Hungarian film Kontroll. They run in time to a propulsive techno-pop soundtrack and the rhythm of an over-caffeinated heartbeat. First-time director Nimród Antal draws on the flourishes of thrillers, comedies, romances and political allegories for his vision of the Budapest subway system as a sleek, rumbling purgatory of lost souls.

Antal establishes a confidently hip tone with his first shot. A real, high-ranking bureaucrat from the Budapest Public Transport Co. reads the disclaimer that, despite being filmed on location, Kontroll presents a fictional story about good vs. evil and not an accurate depiction of the Budapest transit system. The announcement contains both the air of authenticity and the ironic quirks of an Errol Morris documentary.

You can't deny the realism of Kontroll's locale and the perpetual midnight of its fluorescent-lit subway cars, platforms, escalators, food courts and forgotten tunnels. The movie screen practically reeks of grime, electricity and bodies overdue for a bath, but Antal clearly grooves on subterranean transit, just like Martin Scorsese revels in New York neighborhoods by night.

As we get to know Antal's antiheroes - the crabby, hungover ticket inspectors who enforce the subway's rules - Kontroll reveals its debt to American films about nonconformists who buck the status quo. Moody but soulful Bulcsú (Sndor Csnyi) leads a rag-tag team of familiar movie types: a rookie, a dour veteran, a brawny hothead and a squirrelly Ratso Rizzo figure. Antal even gives the crew a Reservoir Dogs shot, walking in slo-mo tandem to a thudding, macho beat. While they come off like tough, unshaven patrol cops or combat troops, they're actually civil servants stuck in the most thankless work imaginable.

Kontroll follows Bulcsú and company as they inevitably butt heads with cheapskate con artists, tourists, pimps, ho's, weirdos and the rest of society's abrasive personalities. It's like the entire city's outcasts sunk through the sidewalk grates to land on the subway.

Kontroll exults when close-quarter tensions explode. A vandal named Bootsie leads the group on high-velocity chases, and Bulcsú's rivalry with the "best" inspection team comes to a head in an insanely dangerous competition: Two men run through a tunnel, hoping to get safely to the next platform before the next train flattens them.

A decade or two ago, Kontroll could be a metaphor for the oppressive presence of communism. The Orwellian aspects remain in place, including the imposing, institutional locations strikingly free of such human touches as graffiti or advertisements. Bulcsú runs afoul of a suitably menacing boss with a Gorbachevian wine stain over one eye who holds the subway system in an iron grip.

Kontroll instead explores a post-Soviet sensibility. For Antal, the subway doesn't stand for the dehumanizing Union, but hangs together through the combined neuroses of the inspectors, passengers and everyone else adrift underground. An amusing, quick-cut scene of a corporate psychologist interviewing inspectors unfolds like mental illness on parade.

We learn that Bulcsú abandoned a life of enormous potential and virtually exiled himself to the underworld. He sleeps on subway platforms and gazes at the exit escalators with suspicion. As Bulcsú, Csnyi looks like a beefy brother of "The Sopranos'" Michael Imperioli and conveys a wounded sensitivity that makes him stand out from his cohorts, who are all anxieties and appetites. He even enters a wary romance with a mysterious beauty (Eszter Balla) who, in an unnecessarily whimsical touch, wears a teddy bear suit.

A suspense plot provides Kontroll with an engine of sorts: An unseen psycho pushes commuters into oncoming trains so they appear to be suicides. With his head hooded, the killer could be a leather-jacketed grim reaper, so it's like Bulcsú must confront death itself in the film's climax. Kontroll could have a little more weight if it emphasized post-communist allegories more than the Hollywood-style pop psychology of facing your inner demons. But enough adrenaline, originality and funky details fuel the film to make you a Kontroll freak.


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