After being so pleasantly surprised by the delightfully bizarre film Common Wealth (La comunidad) by Álex de la Iglesia, I picked up the film he'd done two years previously: 800 Bullets (original Spanish title: 800 balas). It's recognizably in the same style as Common Wealth, starting with its surreal and eye-catching opening credits and extending to its surreal, larger-than-life quality. Even some of the same actors appear here, including the talented Carmen Maura. But 800 Bullets is de la Iglesia with a little too much leeway: whereas in Common Wealth he channels his sense of the bizarre and surreal into a tight and clever plot that only explodes into true weirdness at the very end, in 800 Bullets he is clearly having fun with his material without really having a firm grip on it.
800 Bullets can perhaps be best described as "spaghetti Western collides with the modern day." Although Italy is best known as the land of the spaghetti Westerns (hence the name, of course), southern Spain was the place where many Westerns and other films were shot, including The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Patton, and Lawrence of Arabia. But those "good old days" are gone, leaving behind the flotsam and jetsam of B-movie Westerns: stunt men, acting doubles, and would-be/could-be actors desperately chasing a taste of "Hollywood" by acting in a two-bit tourist trap re-enactment of the Old West. (One amusing touch that will appeal to Spanish viewers (and that will go unnoticed by U.S. viewers) is the use, at a certain point late in the film, of the voice actor who provided the voice for Clint Eastwood in the Spanish dubbed versions of Eastwood's films.)
Ten-year-old Carlos has been raised far, far away from all this by his uptight corporate bigwig mom (Carmen Maura), but when he discovers that his grandfather was a stunt man (the double for Clint Eastwood, no less!) as was his dead father, Carlos bails on a school skiing trip to meet up with the black sheep of the family. And when he does meet up with his grandfather, he becomes drawn into the wacked-out world of these faded stunt men, who are up against a world that barely seems to notice them, let alone give them a decent living.
The first forty-five minutes or so of 800 Bullets is charming and entertaining, as we follow Carlos on his quest to find his grandfather and we get to know the collection of misfits re-enacting bad Westerns for busloads of German and Japanese tourists. But at about the mid-point of the film, it stalls. What had been entertaining wackiness becomes increasingly bizarre and surreal, and it becomes clear that the plot (such as it is) has mostly fallen by the wayside, replaced by a series of setpieces.
There's no denying that 800 Bullets is intriguing in the way that it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, between the characters' lives and the plots of the B-movies they used to work in. If the film had been considerably shorter and thus more tightly constructed, or if de la Iglesia had imposed some greater sense of order on its chaos, it could have been quite a fascinating piece. As it is, it should be recognized for its energy and imagination, but it doesn't quite pull together as a successful film.
800 Bullets appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. Overall, it's a pleasing transfer, with a clean appearance and natural-looking colors. It's a bit soft, but other than that, it looks fine. The English subtitles are optional, and appear in an easy-to-read font. They're fairly accurate, except that the swear words are consistently "softened" a bit in translation.
The Spanish Dolby 5.1 track offers a clean and satisfactory listening experience. Dialogue and sound effects are handled well, and the musical portions of the soundtrack are balanced well with the rest of the track. Optional English subtitles are included.
The main special feature is a 20-minute "making-of" featurette, which is mildly interesting. Two photo galleries are included (one of stills from the film, one of behind-the-scenes shots), along with the film's theatrical trailer. Trailers for Gun-Shy, The Wooden Camera, No Rest for the Brave, and The Stratosphere Girl are also included.
800 Bullets is a very odd movie, offering a surreal blend of modern-day comedy/drama and spaghetti Western, in a homage to all the movies that were filmed using the landscape of southern Spain as a backdrop. Fans of director Álex de la Iglesia's work may find this worth watching, as will devotees of the Western genre, who will enjoy the playful way that 800 Bullets uses the Western motifs. It's not as well crafted as de la Iglesia's subsequent film, Common Wealth, though, and I wouldn't suggest it unless you're in the mood for something very off-the-wall indeed. Rent it.