Sándor Csányi as Bulcsú
Zoltán Mucsi as Professor
Csaba Pindroch as Muki
Sándor Badár as Lecsó
Zsolt Nagy as Tibi
Bence Mátyási as Bootsie
Gyözö Szabó as Árnyék
Eszter Balla as Szofi
Lajos Kovács as Béla
György Cserhalmi as Öltönyös
Zsolt László as C., Cripple
Balázs Mihályfi as Gonzó
Péter Scherer as Fõnök
János Kulka as Feri

Nimród Antal’s strange but fascinating Kontroll is one of those rare classic first films that defines a filmmaker’s career. Antal’s ability to smoothly mix together different genres gives one the impression that he has a promising one ahead of him.

Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi) and his crew are ticket collectors in a massive underground subway system being plagued by a mysterious figure that is pushing passengers in front of trains. When he meets a mysterious girl in a bear suit, Bulcsú begins to reevaluate his career and his life spent entirely underground.

Back in high school, Friday and Saturday nights were often spent going to the next town over to catch the strange midnight films that rarely played in the regular multiplexes. It was a system that spawned such cult classics as Repo Man, Liquid Sky and even Mel Gibson’s Mad Max. Who knows whether any of those films ever got to Hungary, director Nimród Antal’s country of origin, but his first feature film, Kontroll, somehow captures the look and feel of those ’70s and ’80s B-movie classics, but never sticking with one genre long enough to be pinned down as an imitator.

Taking place entirely in an expansive underground subway system, the film starts out as a straight horror thriller involving a killer pushing people in front of trains, but once it introduces the heroes of our story, Bulcsú and his wacky crew of incompetent ticket inspectors, the tone of the movie changes, becoming more of an action-comedy. Bulcsú lives on the subway system, even sleeping there at night, and he seems to be the only one who can hold things together in his band of incompetents.

From there, the film splits into a number of concurrent storylines, as the crew faces off against their “great white whale,” a chronic troublemaker named Bootsie, who leads them on an extended chase scene through the subway. Bulcsú is in conflict with the leader of an opposing team, which culminates in a macho tradition called “railing,” where they race through the subway tunnels between stations, trying to outrace the “midnight express,” a train that won’t be making any stops.

Amidst all of this action is a lot of humor, some of it subtle, but other moments being quite hilarious, especially as we watch Bulscú’s incompetent crew trying to collect tickets from unruly passengers. The actors Antal has assembled for this group are all naturally, especially the bumbling new guy and a narcoleptic, who falls asleep every time he loses his temper. Although working underground has a notably adverse affect on these “kontroll” agents, even that is tempered with humor in a particularly funny montage where they gripe to a psychiatrist about their stressful underground jobs and why no one likes them.

Sándor Csányi, the film’s dapper leading man, is quite a find. He offers depth to his role that one finds only in a select few American actors. In his hands, Bulcsú becomes a complex, tormented character, who gets put through the wringer over the course of the movie. What makes Bulcsú such an interesting character is his enigmatic past that keeps him from going above ground, a mystery intensified when he runs into an old acquaintance and tries to hide the fact that he is a ticket control agent. The entire tone of the story changes when he encounters an ultra-cute and just as mysterious girl in a teddy bear outfit, which allows Antal to explore a fourth genre as a touching romance begins between the two.

With all of the genre-switching, the original thriller about a man pushing people in front of trains quickly gets forgotten, almost becoming a framing sequence for the rest of the movie. When the movie finally gets back to that story, it leads to even more questions about Bulcsú’s relationship with the mysterious hooded subway killer, which culminates with a climactic face-off that leaves that big question open for interpretation.

It’s a bit frustrating, especially since it’s never clear whether this movie is taking place in a futuristic society or somewhere more grounded in the real world. Antal obviously had something to say about the lives of ticket collectors in the Budapest subway system, despite the fact that the film’s opening disclaimer states that the similarities are a mere coincidence.

Still, none of that stops Kontroll from being an entertaining and visually stunning film, as Antal uses the moody subway system to fullest effect. His cinematic influences are hard to pin down, although the thriller aspects may owe a bit to the films of Brian DePalma. The production values on the movie are equal to anything coming out of Hollywood these days, except that Antal never resorts to the type of over-the-top camera or computer effects found way too much in modern action and horror films. Adding to the film’s vibe is this mysterious entity named “Neo” who scored Kontroll. It may very well be the coolest film soundtracks of the year, combining energetic techno music with moody ambient sounds, and it brings a lot to every scene.

The Bottom Line:
First films can be tricky, so it’s rare when a new director comes along who offers something so unique and memorable that it sits alongside classic first features like Sexy Beast, Reservoir Dogs and Shallow Grave. Kontroll is just such a movie.