800 Balas (800 Bullets) **** 1/2 by Alex de la Iglesia with Sancho Gracia, Angel de Andrés López, Carmen Maura, Eusebio Poncela and Luis Castro. OK, people. Here's the "Scream" of the Western genre. Only it is not set in America, but in the fake America in Spain where masterpieces as Lawrence of Arabia and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly were shot. And it is not set in the XIXth Century but in 2.002. And everything is fake, the mirage of times already past.
Alex de la Iglesia's career is truly awesome. His first short, "Mirindas Asesinas" (*****) was hailed by many critics as the BEST spanish short film EVER. Then Pedro Almodóvar himself financed de la Iglesia's film debut, "Acción Mutante" (*** 1/2), a science-fiction terrorist comedy that open new possibilities for spanish film industry. Then he changed his producer to "Belle Epoque" producer Andrés Vicente Gómez, who financed his later films: the legendary "Day of the Beast" (*****), "Perdita Durango" (*****) - the movie that de la Iglesia choose to make instead "Alien Resurrection" - "Muertos de Risa" (**** 1/2) and "La Comunidad" (**** 1/2). A truly awesome career, in my opinion. His trademark wild and surreal humor, grotesque violence and the social subtext of almost all of his movies makes him one of the most extraordinary and unique "auteurs" worldwide.
No wonder that besides "Talk to Her", the most anticipated film in Spain of 2002 was "800 Balas". Did he - once more - deliver the goods?
Yes. A big YES.
The plot: Carlos (Luis Castro) the nasty 11 years old - more or less - son of Laura (Carmen Maura) an executive of a construction company discovers - thanks to his dead father's mother (the great Terele Pávez) that his grandfather is alive and escapes from home to find him in Almería's Hollywood. The situation when he arrives is not good. The Western Hollywood stunt attraction is all that survives from the golden past that land saw in the 60's, the land where Clint Eastwood, David Lean and George C. Scott made great movies (spaghetti westerns, Lawrence of Arabia and Patton: yes, they were shot in Spain!). A land where the last important shooting was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - and so it's kept a photograph of both Spielberg and Lucas at the entrance of the theme park.
Carlos' grandfather, Julián (Sancho Gracia) is the shadow of the man he once was. He plays his usual stunt unconvincingly along with his fellows, including Cheyenne (Angel de Andrés López) with whom he fights at the saloon entrance in a very bad western style. When Julián learns that Carlos is his grandson, guilt resurrects as he's partially to blame of his son's death when playing a stunt many years ago. But things can only get worse when Laura finally finds where is her son.
And I will stop here. I don't want to spoil the fun for you. And yes, I know that this is set for drama, not for comedy. How the situation develops is outstanding. Meet the people of the "theme park". Meet their families. Meet the muslim immigrants. Meet the whores. Meet the Guardia Civil. Meet the Police. Bring 800 bullets, and alcohol, and drugs, and The Pogues' "Fiesta". And you have another de la Iglesia's wild ride to the darkest spanish spirit.
Making sutile references to a lot of westerns and taking even a couple of shots from "Seven Samurai" - which we can admit is some kind of western - de la Iglesia's direction is bizarre, daring, grotesque, strong, and ultimately, unique. And the same can be said of the cast and their performances. Sancho Gracia and Angel de Andrés López are simply awesome in their roles. Some of you may remember Angel de Andrés López from Almodóvar's "What have I done to deserve this?" and "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (althought his part in this one was very small, as a cop)... but both are two of the most underrated spanish actors. In exchange, Carmen Maura is one of the most known spanish actresses - and one of the best - and it may surprise many that her part is not the starring one... The whole supporting cast is great, and even the kid, Luis Castro, who has a very funny sex initiation sequence with a whore (R rating for sure in the USA!) is really funny (when the movie starts, he is playing alone disguised as an islamic terrorist!).
Add to this Roque Baños homage to classic western music at the score, a great cinematography and art direction, stunts, and a nostalgic feeling mixed with a riot and you have one of the best spanish movies of the year, althought some - lesser - pacing problems prevent me of giving the "Masterpiece" rating.
So, an advice: go rent "Day of the Beast" and "Perdita Durango" (Dance with the Devil). If you love or simply like these movies, you'll enjoy "800 Balas"... if you hate them, go check something else.