There is much to be said for the notion within a film that anything can happen, but there is even more to be praised in a work that can achieve that effect in a very narrow context. Some of the greatest dramas have benefited from their very form: as stage productions, they are necessarily limited to the feeble mechanics of deceiving or astonishing a live audience. That we may enjoy as a play the downfall of a Scot amidst the surfacing of a realm of hell suggests that its eventual filming in glorious computer-generated magic – and yes, such a beast may be growling in our vicinity soon enough – might be even more extraordinary. So we should not commit the rather unforgivable sin of equating the adage "anything can happen" with "there are no laws." Laws exist either deductively or a priori, and I will leave it to the astute reader to guess which set would be more welcome on these pages. While he's pondering the matter, we will turn to this rather entertaining film.
The opening sequence features a man and a prepared statement, which may also be understood as the general definition of a script. Our man in Budapest claims to be the head of the city's subway system and is appearing on camera for the sole purpose of informing us that the conductors portrayed in the film do not reflect the actual enforcers floating about the rails that transport "more than three hundred million people every year." Yet honeycombed in this disclaimer are a few offbeat comments regarding the film's artistic purpose – surely the first time in cinematic history that the purported head of a metro system has acted as a preemptive film connoisseur. The film is both "symbolic and fictional," which means that it can be distinguished from a documentary only by its commitment to ludicrous nicknames and overdrawn characters, and here we should permit ourselves a gentle aside. Given the format of what follows, we care nothing for the likelihood that the person speaking is also an actor, nor that the film may or may not have been shot on location, nor, as it were, that Budapest even has a system of onboard enforcement as opposed to turnstiles and greater pre-boarding impediments. Can you imagine an action film preceded by a similar disavowal? If the tactic is one of national protection, it is a mild measure; if, however, a surreal film becomes more surreal by the inclusion of another layer of doubt, then we truly have a masterpiece.
The masterpiece in question will have many aspects of an action film. It has a hero Bulcsú (Csányi Sándor), who was once an architect, and it has what all heroes deserve, a loyal band of confederates: Muki, a mammoth narcoleptic with a very bad temper; the Professor, an older and meticulous gentleman; Lecsó, an elfish sidekick; and Tibor, the proverbial new kid on the block (in a classic hazing ritual, Tibor even gets to vomit at the sight of his first dead body). The red armbands they sport unfortunately suggest another police unit from more hideous times, but an executive decision is made early on to switch to black leather coats with pockets for both badge and band. This motley quintet work as ticket conductors, although only Muki can really defend himself against the seemingly endless stream of aggressive non-compliers. While the film threatens at times to devolve into an overlapping collection of vignettes, each highlighting the eccentricity of a different band member, these threats prove to be quite hollow. The only one accorded significant depth is Bulcsú, but the other all evince enough humanity to make them real (Tibor, for example, vacillates wildly from afraid to overconfident to frustration to panic). They clash with another conductor band, whose self-assured leader Bulcsú bests in a rather dangerous late-night contest and their internal disputes are thankfully kept to a minimum. As is, it should be said, the interference of the management at the top of the metro pyramid, who has been having an appalling time with the large number of opportunistic suicides or "jumpers" in the last few weeks. One such incident begins the film; yet a second incident about fifteen minutes later reveals that all these suicides were unknowingly assisted by a man in a leather jacket and black hood.
Unlike the bangs and scratches of most movie heroes, Bulcsú's scars accumulate. He becomes bloodier, paler, and more fatigued; he also becomes gradually estranged from the reality that he chooses to limit to the underground network, a sort of Frankenstein's monster with his every struggle clearly demarcated on his person. And in a great scene towards the end, Bulcsú even does two things protagonists normally are not allowed to do: he runs for what seems like ten minutes and, during those ten minutes, he loses steam and ambition, his muscles almost giving way to the rest they never properly receive. Despite his increasingly freakish appearance, he attracts a young woman, the daughter of an alcoholic metro driver who has always been friendly and kind to Bulcsú's team. The woman is, however, not without her quirks. Most notably the ubiquitous wearing of a teddy bear suit (perhaps inspired by this film) and her absolute refusal to buy a ticket, a right granted by her father's job. They eventually agree to go to the masked ball held in the metro and advertised very early on by an inconspicuous poster, but not before Bulcsú's past is broached in a wonderful dialogue just at the film's midpoint. His interlocutor is a former colleague, a man that in lesser films would be far less average or passionate. The man praises Bulcsú's work and genuinely misses him, having obtained the team leader position by virtue of, he implies, Bulcsú's departure. It is here that our protagonist reveals his very human fear of failure and the excuse that so many use not to harness their abilities to the maximum. He admires the man's tie and is astonished to learn that the man has kept "every scrap" of his old projects in the hope of his return to the firm. They part in a tacit expression of mutual respect and affection that simply could not occur in Hollywood productions, where every emotion is exaggerated to its puerile extremes.
And what of our, ahem, assisted suicides? The film also does not resolve its mystery in an expected way, although it betrays nothing to mention that the killer shares a certain gesture with another character – and I will leave the matter at that. In view of the strict rules of train schedules, tickets, and government funds, one could claim that public transportation is the segment of our existence in which we are most bound by social etiquette – in no small part because of the need of collective safety. But while the metro never becomes a hell, even when an owl, a classic harbinger of very bad things, is seen perching below, there is a reason Bulcsú tells the paramedics scraping up one of the "jumpers" off the tracks, "I never thought there was a job worse than ours." Perhaps that's also why, at one point, all the escalators are going up.