Wild Wild West (1999)
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Cast: Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek, Ted Levine, Bai Ling.
1999 100 minutes
Rated: (for sexual innuendo and mild profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 3, 1999.
An old television show (this time being the 1960s western/sci-fi series, "The Wild Wild West") turned into a big-screen feature film in the 1990s. Sound familiar? It should, considerieng that it's been done probably two dozen times in the last nine ten years, and not one of them have been good. Let's see, there was "The Flintstones," "Sgt. Bilko," "McHale's Navy," "Leave it to Beaver," "Maverick," "Lost in Space," "The Mod Squad,"...want me to go on?
Set in 1869, special government agent Jim West (Will Smith) and brilliant inventor and master of disguise Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) are paired together by President Ulysses S. Grant (Kline, again) to stop the evil mastermind, Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), whose legs have been amputated and who is planning to take over the world with a giant mechanical, fire-throwing tarantula. In hot pursuit of Loveless, West and Gordon hop aboard a train, do wacky things, get off and are captured by Loveless, are chased by round metal razors through a cornfield, and finally, save the president, as well as a scantily-clad damsel-in-distress (Salma Hayek), and defeat Loveless and his entourage. The End.
If you are wondering what happened to the rest of the movie, or think that I'm exaggerating, I'm not. Basically, what you see in the trailer is what you get, and nothing more. 100 minutes long, but seeming more like an hour, "Wild Wild West" is the latest brainless special-effects extravaganza without any thought going into the story or characters. The film is an empty-headed excursion, not excruciating to sit through, but who would want to waste their money on something a 10-year-old could have written with more dimensions? A terrible sign to begin with, the screenplay was written by not one, not two, not three, but four different people who would probably prefer to remain nameless.
As Jim West, Will Smith is Will Smith, still the suave, wise-cracking hero who saves the day. Kevin Kline is clearly the more accomplished thespian and he proves it here, even in the midst of the intellectually dead story. Kline does wring a few laughs out of the screenplay, but something tells me that most of it was improvised and those jokes that work owe more than a little to his comic skills. Kenneth Branagh, as the wily Dr. Loveless, is doing nothing but grabbing a paycheck and running (at least, I hope, since those optical effects of his amputated legs are awfully realistic). And then we come to Salma Hayek, such a charming actress who is always far more funny and well-used when she makes talk show appearances, as opposed to appearing in movies. Hayek is fresh-faced, giddy, and is so severely wasted that, if I didn't know better, would guess she filmed all of her underwritten scenes in one day.
The only true saving grace of "Wild Wild West" is the marvelous production design by Bo Welch that is always fun to look at, and the offbeat music score by Elmer Bernstein. Too bad what we are watching within these technical aspects is devoid of any original ideas, and rarely any sort of comedic wit.
"Wild Wild West" is Will Smith's third film in the last four years to open on the 4th of July weekend. After meeting box-office success with the junky "Independence Day" and the empty "Men in Black" (which was also directed by "WWW" filmmaker, Barry Sonnenfeld), Smith's luck may have finally run out. Last year's "Enemy of the State" was a step in the right direction, but Smith next needs to prove that he can appear in more worthwhile film (as he did in 1993's excellent drama, "Six Degrees of Seperation"), rather than wasting his time on overblown Hollywood products that exit the viewers' minds as soon as they leave the theater. That, in a nutshell, is exactly the case of the not-very-wild "Wild Wild West."
©1999 by Dustin Putman