Dir: Alex De La Iglesia. 124mins. Spain.
A spoof on the classic western, 800 Bullets (800 Balas) is one of the funniest, most original and stylistically adventurous pictures to emerge from Spain in recent memory. Perhaps heir to that other local master of invention, Pedro Almodovar, director Alex De La Iglesia's proven versatility deserves wider international recognition beyond his growing cult fan base. Although they don't tend to do blockbuster business outside Spain, his films do sell widely and 800 Bullets shouldn't stray from that mould. In Spain, where De La Iglesia's films consistently break box office records, local distributor Warner Sogefilms can expect strong returns following an upbeat opening weekend gross of $465, 631 off 250 screens. TF1 has international rights.
The director and his regular co-scripter Jorge Guerricaechevarria have built up a solid body of work since their hugely successful second film, 1995's The Day Of The Beast (El Dia De La Bestia). Amicably mining Spanish culture for the humour and tragedy of the everyday, they've shown a knack for transforming social outcasts into heroes. In a Coen brothers way, they also seem to be ticking off a checklist of genres with each new film, usually mixing and matching genres.
But their movies are unabashedly aimed at the masses rather than the arthouse cinema-savvy, and one gets the sense that de la Iglesia would take a rapturous audience over a rave review any day. 800 Bullets is a feel-good, laugh out-loud, popcorn-approved movie. It is not G-rated however, despite its child protagonist. Full female nudity, strong language and violence could complicate ratings in some territories.
Young Carlos (Castro) skips out on a class ski trip in search of the film-star grandfather his mother, Laura (Maura), has forbidden him from meeting since the accidental film-set death of his father. Although Grandpa Julian (an impeccable Gracia) turns out to be an alcoholic has-been, Carlos idolises him and the work he does as the play sheriff in the dying tourist attraction of a crumbling Old West set. Like the set, Julian had his heyday in the 1960's working as Clint Eastwood's double on the 'spaghetti westerns' shot in Almeria, Spain.
In both style and story, 800 Bullets ingeniously draws from classic westerns. Julian and his motley gang of wannabe outlaws, Indians and golden-hearted whores'all genre archetypes'are anachronistic characters with no place in the modern world. Secondary actors, led by an excellent Andres, are physically perfect for their roles. A good-versus-evil storyline involves civilisation encroaching yet again on the frontier outpost.
Deftly-filmed, effects-laden action sequences include wagon races, shoot-outs, saloon brawls, foot-stomping boozefests and the obligatory showdown finale. One of several classic scenes has Julian's cohorts riding up on horseback alongside a bus to rescue Carlos. Memorable camerawork includes shots through a noose, atop a hip holster, across the vast desert-scape or between the open legs of a duelling gunslinger.
800 Bullets has trouble sustaining emotion for a full two hours and some elements could be cut to shrink it to a more manageable running time, for instance the less inspired Madrid scenes and some superfluous background plotting.
Prod co: Panico Films
Spain dist: Warner Sogefilms
Intl sales: TF1
Exec prod: Juanma Pagazaurtundua
Assoc Prod: Maria Angulo
Scr: Jorge Guerricaechevarria, De La Iglesia
Cinematography: Flavio Labiano
Prod des: Arri & Biaffra
Ed: Alejandro Lazaro
Music: Roque Banos
Main cast: Sancho Gracia, Angel De Andres, Carmen Maura, Eusebio Poncela, Luis Castro