Some years ago, a stagecoach was rushing through a desert valley when a couple of highwaymen appeared and opened fire, galloping after it on their horses. Although a passenger and one of the drivers returned fire, it was not enough and they both were shot dead, falling to the dust, yet when one of the outlaws tried to jump onto the stagecoach's horses to stop them in their tracks, there was an accident and he was crushed under their hooves and the wheels of the coach. The director yelled "cut!" and all hell broke loose, for this was a movie set and one of the stuntmen had just been killed; he happened to be the son of the older stuntman, Julían (Sancho Gracia), who he had been performing with...
Although 800 Bullets, or 800 Balas if you were Spanish, kicked off as a tribute to Westerns, specifically those Spaghetti Westerns lensed in Spain, it was more than a simple homage. Sure, that opening sequence was a pitch perfect recreation of the sort of action sequence you would see in that genre, and the opening titles a masterful copy of the credits such a work of the past would demonstrate (complete with Ennio Morricone soundalike score from Roque Baños, also very faithful), but it was set in the modern day, even though the timing didn't quite add up. The little kid, Carlos (Luis Castro), who we see the story unfolding before can't be much more than ten years old, yet he is supposed to be the son of the dead stuntman.
Which doesn't make sense since the Spaghetti Western craze was a good fifteen years over by the time he would have been born, and though Carmen Maura who played his mother Laura was old enough to have been around in the sixties, she was old enough to be the kid's grandmother rather than his parent, which left the timeframe of the plot somewhat baffling. Not to mention Julían is still knocking around, only by this stage in his life he is leading a troupe of Western re-enactors in the mock-up desert town where many of those old movies were created, basking in past glories for a handful of tourists who show up most days, though as one of the performers points out there's more people in the show than there are actually watching it.
Still, this gave co-writer and director Álex de la Iglesia the chance to assemble one of his shaggy dog story casts of misfits to play out one of his typically rambling yarns, and if anything this rambled more than most, meandering on for far too long when it really should have been tightened up in the editing. Yet for all its sense of overindulgence, if you've ever had a love not just for Spaghetti Westerns but the traditions of moviemaking in general, there was a lot to appreciate here, led by Spanish TV star Sancho Gracia as the epitome of the charming rogue, as if stepped out of one of the films he had made his living from, and oddly noble with it. Once the insatiably inquisitive Carlos escapes the clutches of his mother and runs away to meet his grandfather, he stops being a brat and finds his element.
The collection of outsiders who cannot imagine doing anything else except the Western re-enactments (the sole alternative appears to be picking fruit under huge plastic sheets along with the immigrant workers - a few of whom double as Indians in the show) are in their rambunctious manner a family, and Carlos fits here under the warm Almeria sun far better than he does at the cold surroundings of his actual home. From the fact that they are defined by their personas, from the hanged man (who keeps getting forgotten about and left to swing in peeved demeanour) to the dragged by horses man (who takes every opportunity to demonstrate his party trick) to the saloon girl (who goes a little too far in teaching Carlos how to fondle a woman's breasts) they don't know how content they are until this existence is threatened, and the last part of the story details Julían's determination to have it end satisfyingly. As much a tribute to Clint Eastwood's pleasing cult effort Bronco Billy as it was to his Sergio Leone roles, 800 Bullets won you over because its heart was in the right place.