Universal // 1998 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // March 21st, 2000
Two cats...one car...and a world of hurt.
Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane is a surprisingly good gritty shoot-em-up/comedy considering it's budget, cast, and director. Walking in the footsteps of Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi fledgling director/writer/producer/star Joe Carnahan made this film on his own for $7300, then after film festival successes, got it bought and released by Lions Gate Films and Universal. Definitely done with homage to both Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, the film manages not to look like a cheap knock off. For a first time effort on this budgetary scale, I could not have asked for more. This film is worth looking at both for it's own merits and to see what I think is the beginning of a promising career.
It's fair to say I didn't expect much from this movie. The over-the-top title and the very cheap title stencils made me wary in a hurry. Perhaps that is part of why I liked it so much, that my expectations were low. I couldn't make a truer statement about the film than that it exceeded my expectations. In fact, it greatly exceeded them. The film was fast paced, with quick dialogue and gritty characters that would have been at home in any early Tarantino work. Yet the film also works as a dark comedy, some of the scenes were very funny. Considering there isn't one actor in the film I recognized (reportedly the cast was paid partly in Doritos) the talent was undeniable.
Tarantino wasn't the only artist that obviously influenced Carnahan's work. The changing film stocks and camera angles were very reminiscent of Stone's Natural Born Killers, with bright color giving way to grainy black and white at a moment's notice. Somehow though I never felt like any of it was blatant rip-off, instead more of a homage and attempt to use what works in this type of picture. The beginning of the story, with two very seedy used car dealers trying to sell utter junk to suckers, reminded me of the classic comedy Used Cars which assuredly is not a bad thing.
Joe Carnahan plays Sid, who with his partner Bob (co-producer Dan Leis) are really down on their luck. They are across the road from the biggest used car dealer in the area, and they can't even get a decent car to sell. But the wealthy dealer Mr. Woo (Dan Harlan) isn't all bad. He loves his wife and offers to repay the pair for their aid in deflecting an IRS audit. Indeed it appears that their luck is about to change, when their distributor offers them the car of a lifetime: a 1963 Pontiac convertible that they don't even have to sell. In return for just parking the car on their lot for 48 hours, they will be paid $250,000, half in advance. Of course the venture is risky, as they are informed that they will be watched every minute by men with rifles and that the trunk of the car is set to explode if it is opened. You see early on that the car is definitely a portent of trouble, as everyone who has gotten behind it's wheel has been killed in very gruesome ways. In fact the car has been tracked from South America all the way up to Needles, California with almost 40 bodies strewn along the way. In true Tarantino style backstabbing and betrayal are the order of the day, and the payoff, or finding out what is in the trunk, is a surprise that few if any will see coming. Yet it all makes sense.
Even better than the story is the dialogue. The dialogue comes out at a fast paced clip, with an alternating intensity and comic relief that keeps you on your toes. A round robin of characters, many of which end up dead, are all very well done, and some of them have future careers as rap artists if they so choose.
Enough gushing. But I will say that most of what is wrong with the picture can be totally attributed to it's budget and monetary considerations. A few hundred thousand dollars could have made this a much better picture. Lions Gate spent $100,000 on taking the 16mm and video original and making a 35mm transfer, but that was the only money sunk into it. Most of what is wrong has to do with production value, which like El Mariachi greatly exceeded it's budget, but there is only so much you can do with a film for less than $8000.
Universal understandably didn't put a ton of money into this indie project either. At least they retained the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, though it is non-anamorphic. Making a new hi-def transfer to give it anamorphic I'm sure would have cost more than the film. The picture looks quite good considering. When colors are called for they are well saturated, and the grainy black and white has good blacks. The Dolby Surround soundtrack was certainly underwhelming for an action film with lots of gunshots, but again, making a DD 5.1 track would have cost more than the film. Dialogue remains clear throughout at least, which is most important considering the amount and pace of it. An interesting trailer that purely plays off the extreme low budget approach to the film (Dan Leis working in a burger joint talking about how he's going to be a big star) is the only extra, but for once I enjoyed the trailer. Making a good trailer is an art that studios seemingly have forgotten.
If you like Quentin Tarantino or Oliver Stone, then you'll probably like this one. You have to also keep in mind that it is extremely low budget, so if you're worried about the quality of it all try it as a rental first. If you're like me though you'll be pleasantly surprised. I look forward to seeing what Joe Carnahan can do with a real budget.
All involved with the picture are acquitted with prejudice, and Universal is let off the hook for not giving full blown treatment to a film that cost so little and might not make any money. Now if they'd just get rid of the Alpha Keepcase I'd be happy as they've shown great improvement in the other areas.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R