Images of spinning tumbleweeds and drunken bar-room brawls set the scene for 800 Bullets, the latest offering from cult director Alex de la Iglesia, which finally sees a DVD release. Taking its cue from every Western you’ve ever seen, de la Iglesia presents us with the washed-up former stuntman Julií¡n Torralba, an eccentric who is desperately trying to keep his spirit alive by performing action shows on a crumbling Wild West film set in Spain, the very location of his prior glory. In his own words Torralba’s stunts captured the respect of the Western icon himself, Clint Eastwood, but the best he and his team can hope for now is a cluster of Japanese tourists that will secure the next month’s living expenses. He is also still coming to terms with the death of his son, who was killed on set in a stunt gone wrong, and the subsequent estrangement from his daughter-in-law and young grandson Carlos. When the young boy stumbles across relics that point to his grandfather’s legacy, he immediately becomes infatuated with the idea of escaping his seemingly idyllic life, and takes it upon himself to sign up to his class’ skiing trip, only to deviate from the group and set off on his own quest for adventure in search of Julií¡n.
De la Iglesia’s homage/satire/parody works best when taking risks. The funniest scene sees the young Carlos, having been initiated into his grandfather’s clan of Western-themed misfits, finding himself alone with a bra-less prostitute. In keeping with the liberal values of Julií¡n’s regime, she proceeds to give him a masterclass on breast fondling (‘no, not like you’re ringing a doorbell!’), only for the young boy to be phoned mid-session by his mother, eager to know how the skiing trip is going. In scenes like this you’re not sure whether to laugh or be worried about the social services bursting onto the set, but the film is all the better for it.
Unfortunately the script, written by de la Iglesia with Jorge GuerricaechevarríÂa, is wildly inconsistent and at times veers towards the sentimental. Where 800 Bullets is centred on family values and reflects heavily upon the relationship between generations, it seems like an easy option to tie up strands of narrative with predictable feel-good schmaltz, especially as the strengths of the film lie in injecting the clichés of old Westerns with de la Iglesia’s trademark quirkiness. Adding to this is the fact that 800 Bullets looks and feels like a kid’s film. The cinematography is clean and bursting with colour, the dialogue (when not peppered with profanity) is frank, and much of the soundtrack could have been written by John Williams on a lazy day. While on the surface this sounds like an interesting idea, as much of the film is seen through the eyes of Carlos, it comes across less as a stylistic choice and more as an attempt to reach the crossover mainstream audience enjoyed by de la Iglesia’s Hispanic contemporaries Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo del Toro. This sadly compromises the more daring aspects of the film.
While excessive and over the top in parts, 800 Bullets comes across as more Shanghai Noon than El Topo. Despite intriguing ideas that could have been built upon, the film is just too safe in its journey to have any real merit and comes across as a generic Western spoof rather than the witty homage it could have been. Let’s hope that de la Iglesia’s first English-language offering The Oxford Murders can restore faith in his undeniable talent.