Wild Wild West
Screenplay : Brent Maddock and Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman and S.S. Wilson
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Will Smith (James T. West), Kevin Kline (Artemus Gordon), Kenneth Branagh (Dr. Arliss Loveless), Salma Hayek (Rita Escobar), M. Emmet Walsh (Coleman), Ted Levine (McGrath), Frederique Van Der Wal (Amazonia), Musetta Vander (Munitia)
Barry Sonnenfeld's "Wild Wild West" is a giant, bombastic flop of a movie. It's a $100-million science fiction-Western-comedy-action hybrid with elaborate special effects and big name stars that never manages to balance itself, let alone gain momentum. It just sort of chugs along on good intentions and the hope that some of its tedious jokes might land with something other than a thud.
The movie is loosely based on a late '60s TV show about two special agents armed with various gadgets fighting bad guys on the Western frontier. The producers of this big screen version obviously did not take note of last year's lackluster updating of "Lost in Space" and "The Avengers" and this year's pathetic updating of "The Mod Squad." Had they paid attention, they would have realized that reviving silly TV shows of yesteryear rarely makes for good cinema (the one possible exception is 1996's "Mission: Impossible," but much of that movie's success can be attributed to the simple overwhelming star power of Tom Cruise).
Will Smith--frustratingly flat considering that he is normally a reliable star in high-concept movies--stars as James West, a U.S. special agent who reluctantly teams up with Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), a U.S. Marshall with a talent for disguises and wacky inventions. The year in 1869, and their mission is nothing less than saving the United States from the clutches of Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a bitter Confederate general who is intent on forcing President Ulysses S. Grant to surrender the country and allow it to be sectioned off and returned to England, Spain, France, and Mexico. As part of his diabolical scheme, Loveless has kidnapped the country's most respected physicists, chemists, and engineers and is forcing them to design and build weapons of mass destruction.
The movie's basic impetus is something of a crapshoot: trying to blend such seemingly disparate genres as science fiction and the Western is a risky enterprise, although not an impossibility. If anyone could pull it off, it would be director Barry Sonnenfeld, whose expertise at combining sly, subversive comedy with big screen excitement paid off handsomely in 1997's "Men in Black." Unfortunately, with "Wild Wild West," he is saddled with a lifeless screenplay (credited to four different writers) that is rarely able to generate a single laugh.
Smith and Kline, both of whom have proved themselves to be excellent comedic actors in the past, have little on-screen chemistry, and they both look lost (or bored). Smith tries to rekindle some of the same humor that served him well in "Men in Black," but Kline is not up to Tommy Lee Jones' task of subverting Smith's smart-ass confidence with doses of cold reality. That was the essence of what made Smith and Jones click so well two years ago; in "Wild Wild West," Kline's Artemus is a weak character who is never properly defined, thus he is no match for Smith's persona.
Much of "Wild Wild West" is given over to elaborate FX sequences, especially the grand finale that involves an 80-foot mechanical tarantula crashing through Utah's Monument Valley, the beautifully rugged landscape that was home to several of John Ford's greatest Westerns. The tarantula itself is so flawlessly conceived and executed by the special effects gurus that it actually convinces you such an impossible techno-creation could exist. It is both clunky and graceful at the same time, menacing and utterly silly; the fact that it is so ridiculous in its unnecessarily over-elaborate conception is a thought not entirely lost on thinking members of the audience.
Over-elaborateness seems to be the keyword in "Wild Wild West." Everything is taken to impossible extremes, and in a better movie, this could be seen as a sign of playful zest. But here it is mostly distracting. Take, for instance, the evil Loveless. In the Civil War, he lost the bottom half of his body, and he spends the majority of the movie zipping around in a steam-powered wheelchair that he is literally built into. At another point, this wheelchair sprouts spider-like legs and allows him to walk around like a giant insect. Even his physical appearance is unduly complicated. Branagh's beard is shaved into some kind of a bizarre pattern that, given the rest of the movie's arachnid obsession, is reminiscent of a spider's legs.
If anything, "Wild Wild West" is best at wasting good Hollywood talent. Director Sonnenfeld and stars Smith and Kline are not the only ones to be squandered in this overproduced mess. Salma Hayek does little in her supporting role as a daughter of one of the kidnapped scientists but coo over how "courageous," "strong," and "graceful" Will Smith is and flash her derriere in one of the film's few humorous sequences. Even M. Emmet Walsh, in a small part as a train conductor who takes the two stars where they need to go, is given almost nothing to do except misinterpret a conversation between Smith and Kline so he thinks they are engaging in some kind of sexual foreplay. It's a scene that was stale when Don Knotts did it on "Three's Company" 15 years ago.
The major question here is whether the material is simply unworkable, or did the filmmakers botch the job? I think it is a little bit of both. Almost everyone involved is currently riding a high of successful movies, and it was probably about time their over-confidence took over and produced a stinker. If it can happen to such cinematic masters as Ingmar Bergman, Orson Welles, and Francis Ford Coppola, then it can happen to Barry Sonnenfeld. The proof is "Wild Wild West."
©1999 James Kendrick