May 11, 2009

800 Balas (2002)

The province of Almería in Spain, became widely famous among film producers in the 60s and 70s, as it had the perfect natural settings for making movies. A couple of big epic productions like "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and "Cleopatra" (1963) were the first to take advantage of it, but it would be the Italian filmmakers of the late 60s whom would really exploit the vast potential of Almería as a location, making it the scenery for their low budget Westerns. The deserted landscape of Almería became an integral part of the Italian way of making Westerns, and to many of its inhabitants, it meant their entrance to the world of Spaghetti Westerns. "800 Balas" ("800 Bullets"), is director Alex De la Iglesia's homage to Almería, and the legendary Spaghetti Westerns that were produced there, as well as the many people who found job in those classic movies. With his now trademark black humor to its fullest, De la Iglesia does for Westerns what he did for the Horror genre in "El Dia De la Bestia", and delivers another jewel in this the sixth film in his interesting filmography.

Carlos (Luis Castro) is a youngster to whom growing up without a father figure has turned him into a spoiled troublemaker. One day Carlos discovers a photograph of her deceased father dressed as a cowboy, and soon he finds out that his father worked as a stuntman in the desert of Almería along with his grandfather, but neither his mother Laura (Carmen Maura), nor his grandmother (Terele Pávez) are willing to speak more about that. So, fooling his mother, Carlos visits Almería, and discovers that his grandfather Julián (Sancho Gracia) is still alive and keeps working making stunt shows with a group of former stuntman in a decaying set built for those old Spaghetti Westerns. Already angry with Julián about what happened to her late husband, Laura becomes even angrier when she finds out that her son is living with him. So in order to finish Julián once and for all, she decides to use her business to ruin Julian's old western stunt show; but neither the former cowboy nor his gang are willing to let that happen. An all they have to defend themselves are 800 bullets.

Written by De la Iglesia's frequent collaborator, writer Jorge Guerricaechevarría, and director Álex De la Iglesia himself, "800 Balas" is a story that uses that simple and typical premise about a boy discovering his deceased father's past to create a multi-layered story about honor, loyalty, and specially, about the fine line between reality and fiction; in a weird homage to the Spaghetti Westerns, all spiced up by countless references to the genre and a huge dose of the writer's trademark black humor. While not exactly a Western, De la Iglesia and Guerricaechevarría play with the genre's conventions, using it to represent the passion and magic of cinema by focusing on those who add realism to the stunts. With cinema as the perfect factory of dreams, De la Iglesia makes Julián and his gang of outsiders a group of people who never accepted that the dream they helped to create was over, and on the contrary, still feel the essence of Spaghetti Westerns in the wind of Almería. "800 Balas" is first and foremost, a loving tribute to Almería, its people, and its Westerns.

Certainly, "800 Balas" is more a character study (action-packed, but still a character study) than a straightforward Western, but De la Iglesia showcases a deep knowledge of the Spaghetti Westerns that fans of the genre will find rewarding, as the film is filled with countless references to the genre. With a stunning photography (by regular collaborator Flavio Martínez Labiano) that mimics the one of Leone's classics, and a score (by Roque Baños) that gives more than one nod to Morricone's music; De la Iglesia captures the essence of the Westerns shot in Almería, imbuing it in his tale of renegade cowboys making their final ride. As written above, "800 Balas" may not be a Western, but it feels like one, as the line between film and reality is one of the film's central themes. The originality and freshness of De la Iglesia's early years still can be seen in the way the camera flows across the scenes with a smooth pace, as well as in the humorous, irreverent tone the film has. De la Iglesia's conception of the action scenes in "800 Balas" is one of the film's greatest assets.

While everyone involved really did a great job in this film, the movie literally belongs to Sancho Gracia, as his outstanding performance as Julián Torralba is truly the film's heart. A former Spaghetti Western actor himself, Sancho Gracia adds a lot of realism and dignity to the role, making his character a complex figure that transcends a role that easily could had been nothing more than a funny caricature. With great presence and charm, Gracia becomes the former stuntman in a believable and natural way. In the role that serves as catalyst for the film's events, Luis Castro serves as an excellent counterpart to Sancho Gracia. As the problem child who grows up and matures as he discovers the identity of his father, Castro shows a great amount of talent for his age. Once again Carmen Maura delivers an effective performance as the film's antagonist, even though her role is a tad underwritten. Playing Julián's eternal rival, Ángel de Andrés López really steals the show handling perfectly the mix of comedy and drama that's prevalent in "800 Balas".

The rest of the cast are for the most part OK, making effective performances in their roles. However, I must say that at times the characters tend to become exactly what they should not be: walking stereotypes. Still, this is more a flaw in the otherwise very good script than any of the actor's fault, as unlike the main characters, the supporting ones lack the development given to Julian and his grandson. This is one of the two main problems "800 Balas" faces, with the second major problem being the fact that the movie is simply a bit overlong; because even when the film keeps a nice good pace for the most part, by the middle the film really begins to drag a bit. Scenes that are too long or even uneccessary (in the sense that, while fun, add little to the plot) break the fluid pace of the film, bringing down the rythmn and making the film to feel tedious at times. Nevertheless, despite those flaws, "800 Balas" is still one of Alex De la Iglesia's funniest films, and a very recommended watch for every fan of the Spaghetti Western films of the 60s and 70s.

Like the cowboys he often played on screen, the old stuntman Julián Torralba decides to fight until the end against modernity, playing the only he role he knows to play. With his story, bittersweet mix of comedy and tragedy, "800 Balas" pays tribute to those who lost their lifestyle when Almería was abandoned by the movie industry. Despite it's obvious flaws, "800 Balas" is a remarkable homage to a long lost era, and another amazing work by one of Spain's most original filmmakers. This love letter to cinema (and to those behind every production) is a must-see for Western fans, specially those who enjoyed watching Clint Eastwood walking through Almería, as the spirit of those legendary films seems to revive in this movie for a last ride through the Spanish desert.


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