Some call him Greenhorn, some call him Tony Randall, but Judge Bill Gibron calls this modern comic western from Spain a totally underwhelming experience.
Let the (boring) battle begin…
Carlos is an unruly, spoiled brat living with his workaholic mother and overbearing grandmother in Madrid. While moving, the boy uncovers a picture of his dead father and starts to ask questions. It turns out that Dad was a stuntman, and working with his grandfather in the Almeria region of Spain, made appearances in several of the classic spaghetti westerns. Curious to meet the relative he's never known and learn more about his father, Carlos leaves a school skiing trip, hires a cab, and travels to Almeria. There he discovers "Texas Hollywood," a ghost town attraction run by his grandfather and several of the locals. They put on daily cowboys and indians shows for the tourists, and spend their nights in drunken, disillusioned debauchery.
At first, the grandfather, named Julian, doesn't want anything to do with his grandson. But sensing the boy's spirit of adventure, as well as his high limit Visa credit card, the two reconnect. Naturally, when Carlos's mother finds out, she's livid. She has never forgiven Julian for what happened to her husband, and she just may have some metaphysical payback all her own. Seems the company she works for is looking for some land upon which to build a theme park. And "Texas Hollywood" would be perfect. With Carlos watching, Julian is determined to fight for his livelihood, as well as his legacy, even if it takes a good old-fashioned standoff and 800 Bullets to do it.
At the core of 800 Bullets is a wonderful, wistful premise. Traveling back to Almeria, Spain—the scene of so many spaghetti westerns and big budget Hollywood epics from the 1960s and '70s—to see what became of the region to which Hollywood said its hasty goodbyes is a grand, nostalgic idea. Handled properly, with both respect and irreverence, a kind of classic could emerge, a movie that both celebrates and castigates the film industry for its slash-and-burn business practices. It would give us a chance to meet some of the personalities, the actors and crew members who helped support the cinematic carpetbaggers, and hear their tales of woe and wonder. But most of all, it would be a homage to a great genre of film, an opportunity to revisit the style and the substance of those amazingly operatic slow burn oaters that helped redefine, and ruin, the cowboy movie forever.
And you know, 800 Bullets thinks that it does all this, and more. Crazy cult director Alex De La Iglesia, who is often referred to as an over the top Guillermo Del Toro, has made a name for himself as a creator of over the top surrealistic action pictures, movies like Mutant Action and Dance with the Devil. But he takes a weird, weepy step backward with this combination comedy and callousness. This is a film forged out of spirits both mean and amused, a narrative that wants to walk on the sides of melancholy, menace, and mugging simultaneously. Such an uneasy mix of tones constantly derails 800 Bullets, tossing us around randomly until we never get our bearings. Using the Leone language of overlong takes, drawn out scenes, and overblown subplots, De La Iglesia seems to be striving for a kind of happy medium homage. Part of the time, he wants to remind the viewer of Once Upon a Time in the West. But at other moments, he appears to be remaking The Goonies with grizzled old Spaniards as his half-witted heroes.
At over two hours, 800 Bullets feels like two separate, incomplete films tossed together. The first hour is all set up, a lazy coming of age story about an abrasive kid who, frankly, deserves a beating more than the privileged life he leads. As he makes his completely contrived way to Almeria, we kind of get caught up in his impending adventures. And since it's inter-cut with some semi-humorous sequences with the "Texas Hollywood" players, we anticipate something silly and saccharine, but still very viable. But the minute Pedro Almodovar regular Carmen Maura reappears as Carlos's pissed-off mother, the movie goes crazily catawampus. Instead of being about the child and the discovery of his past, it turns into a Spanish standoff between a bunch of eccentric losers and some creepy corporate sleazeballs. And then the film turns exceptionally violent, the title projectiles spilling blood and bringing mayhem to what was really just a languid, loose lark.
As stated before, De La Iglesia is so in love with his ideas that he lets them last for far too long onscreen. An editor could come in and tighten up 800 Bullets by at least 30 minutes, considering the number of nonsensical tangents the narrative travels in and around. For example, the mayor of the small Almeria village is also owner of the ghost town. He has a strange relationship with his workers, but this is never explored. Additionally, the yin to Grandpa Julian's yang, a local tavern owner who plays the black-hatted bad guy in the show, has several sequences with his unhinged shrew of a wife—only one of which directly affects the story. De La Iglesia may think this adds character or depth to his tale, but it also keeps it from building any kind of real storyline momentum. From the grandmother who still seems smitten by the man she condemns, to the befuddled stuntman who thinks he's from another region of Spain (he's taken one too many falls, you see), 800 Bullets is loaded with such loose ends.
Overall, 800 Bullets really doesn't understand what it's celebrating. If it's the Almeria region, then the vistas are highly underserved. De La Iglesia would rather focus on the faces of his cast—or the bodies of some of the empty, vacant females in the film—than the land that made the spaghetti western famous. Additionally, the throwbacks to that style of cinema are minimal and lack in knowing grace. They just appear randomly, and without much reference. Carlos's own tale is frequently chucked aside for more set-piece spectacle, and the entire theme park angle is a contrivance perpetrated to drive the finale. Indeed, 800 Bullets is an over-scripted film that still finds a way to say very little with its elephantine dynamics. It's too long, and too perplexing, for the subject matter it wants to explore. Instead of being prescient and to the point, it's a Cliff's Notes version of the guns and grit genre.
TLA's release of this title is technically excellent. De Le Iglesia has a wonderful visual eye, and Almeria occasionally looks amazing in the spectacular 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The colors are crisp, the print pristine and without flaws. The brightness does appear excessive, but this was the style of the older genre films. As a result, we get a heightened sense of reality, and a nice non-sepia slice of nostalgia with this transfer. Aurally, the Dolby Digital 5.1 has a lot of spatial depth. The Morricone-inspired musical score, with its orchestral bombast and tall in the saddle absurdity, is just right. Dialogue is easily discernable, and while the subtitles do rush by at an alarming pace, they are still easy to read and, thankfully, not too literal.
On the bonus front, there is a series of trailers for other TLA product, a nice ad for 800 Bullets itself, a couple of behind-the-scenes and photo galleries, and a 21-minute making-of featurette. De La Iglesia really loves this movie, and makes no bones about mentioning it several dozen times during the documentary. He calls it his favorite film of those he's made, and especially enjoys the big budget bravado he helms in the concluding ghost town stand off. In some ways, this short film is more interesting than all of 800 Bullets, since it gives us the insight into modern Spanish moviemaking that the feature fails to generate for the cinema of the past.
Perhaps it's foolhardy to think that a single film could both deconstruct and delight in the old-fashioned filmmaking styles of the western. Since they bordered on parodies themselves, the spaghetti side of the genre may not be the proper place for such a sentiment. 800 Bullets does have potential, from the opening stagecoach chase to the closing reference to a certain "man with no name." But many of the topics get lost in a desire to cover all the dramatic and comedic bases, and without a single salient strand to hold it together, it just can't help but fall apart. 800 Bullets is about as many minutes too long, and about as many plotlines too plump.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• The Making of 800 Bullets
Review content copyright © 2005 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.