Wednesday, April 20, 2005

DVD REVIEW: 800 Bullets

Here is a plot synopsis for "800 Bullets": Carlos, a mischevious 12 year-old troublemaker, is living in Spain under the reign of his mother, a cold and serious-minded corporate executive. He's bursting at the seams with the boyish longing for high adventure which is, of course, harshly suppressed by mother along with any questions as to the identity of his father (who, it would seem, probably had more in common with his son than the woman his wife has become.) One night, digging through moving boxes with his flashlight he discovers (amid a swell of twinly Spielbergian "discovery music") that his grandfather Julian was a stuntman in the 70s "Spaghetti Westerns" that were shot in the not-far-away Almeria desert long ago... and that he may still be there. A real live Western star! He heads off to Almeria seeking adventure and answers, and finds Grandpa Julian and a host of other wacky, aging Western stuntmen indeed are still living on the old cowboy sets, living lives of half-imagined excess and putting on cowboy stunt shows for tourists. Enraptured, Julian joins the slapsticky fun and games of these wacky cowboy performers and has the time of his life... until mother shows up with her corporate cronies and a plan to turn the whole place into a garish theme park. But the wacky cowboys and Carlos aren't going without a fight, and they plan to hold off the bulldozers in a real life Old West standoff!

Armed only with this description, I imagine most people would immediately presume "800 Bullets" to be a family film, a comedy about a boy on a wild comic adventure. The wacky cowboys, the Hillary/Cruella mother character, the basic idea of "running off to join the circus," it's not hard to picture this all as some kind of awful Disney or Warner Bros. vehicle starring some odious sitcom tyke.

However, while it may (deliberately, I think) sport the plot, the characters and the arc of a lame kiddie time-waster, "800 Bullets" has other things on it's mind: It's also an R-rated bawdy dark comedy, brimming with foul language, bloody gunfights and fairly explicit sex scenes. It's a night and day hybrid, but somehow it all works. It works really damn well, courtesy of Spanish cult-film wunderkind Alex de la Iglesia.

This is one of those films that defies easy characterization... in plot, it's a kid's film. In characters, it's a dark comedy. As the third act rolls around, it becomes a violent shoot-em-up. The disparate elements criss-cross back and forth between one-another, stirring up something resembling mini-tempest of mixed genres. It's hard to imagine a kid who wouldn't be swept along with Carlos' adventure here, but equally hard to imagine that most parents would find this film appropriate for any child of Carlos' age. In this respect it reminds me of another excellent recent Spanish import, "The Devil's Backbone," which also plays primarily as a children's film for grownups. (see also: "The Witches.")

It's also a loving, if minimally cynical, homage to the wonderment of children for the movies... not just the Spaghetti Westerns, but Westerns and boy-friendly adventure films in general. It's final coda, which I couldn't bring myself to reveal, is something I can honestly admit got me a little bit choked up. (Even as one does sort of see it coming.)

I suppose it can be read-into the film, of one chooses, that it's buried message carries with it the hint of misogyny: Carlos and Julian are both, in their own way, ersatz Peter Pans who wish always to be little boys and have fun, and their "Captain Hook" in Carlos' mother is indeed painted as an anti-maternal harpy who's not only chosen business meetings and fancy (masculine) suits over child-rearing, but who's ultimate aim always winds up as a malevolent spoiler of fun and games and hiss the vile orders to "grow up!" at everyone. Let it be said, though, that the film is intelligent enough to give her a point of view on the proceedings that is eventually sympathetic, and that it doesn't take the easy road of making Julian anything close to a 100% noble figure.

I suppose this decidedly politically-incorrect undercurrent, plus the more explicit suggestion that Carlos is really seeking out the missing and desperately-needed masculine influence on his life in order to "become a man," will bother some people. Myself, I can acknowledge that it's there and accept it as a part of the film's worldview, and also that since a HUGE majority of films (family or otherwise) especially in America are much more explicit in their messages about men and fathers-especially being (at worst) evil or (at best) completely unecessary, perhaps it's proper that this film attempts a sort of counterbalance.

Bottom line: A fun film, highly reccomended.