Over-acted, over-designed, over-produced, over-merchandised, and overall oversold, Wild Wild West is a thin wisp of a Western action-fantasy. That so many talented people wound up making this ungodly mess of a movie makes me sad.
In 1869, mismatched federal officers Jim West (Will Smith) and Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) are thrown together by President U.S. Grant to solve a Western mystery. Top American scientists are being kidnapped – or, if they try to escape as one does in the genuinely stupid first scene, killed – by Arliss Loveless, a Bond villain-wannabe and casual racist played with flailing-about hysteria by the out-of-control Kenneth Branagh.
Loveless plans to build an ultimate weapon so he can split up the United States as revenge against the North. Apparently, he’s mad at America ripping off the world, or something – he refers to the purchase of Manhattan for $24 worth of trinkets, and he sort of refers to how little we paid for the huge Louisiana Purchase – but this is so poorly explained that we can’t get a handle on any motivation, or any threat.
(By the way, the details of Wild Wild West are astonishingly sloppy. Way too much of the plot is left unexplained, including the actual ending. This film’s map of the U.S. in 1869 is beyond inaccurate; it’s the U.S.A. from fifty years later! And one scene reminded me of that stupid scene in Independence Day where Will Smith takes half a minute to notice the 15-mile-wide flying saucer directly in his line of sight…)
Of course, West and Gordon hate each other, and of course they compete for the affections of obligatory female Salma Hayek – who has nothing to do here, in contrast to Linda Fiorentino’s assertive and offbeat Laurel from the same director’s Men In Black – and there’s never any warming-up between the two men. It’s a buddy film without the buddies.
Yes, Will Smith is an emerging star, and that is a good thing. He is likable and charismatic, and he will be able to bring viewers along once he leaps into more challenging, less comfortable work. Enemy of the State (1998) wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was both dramatic and clever, and it let him drop his sheen of I-can-handle-everything cool that served him well in Independence Day and Men In Black. I could even see him doing theater as a new challenge. But there’s no chance for him to stretch or grow as an actor in this flick.
Kline, meanwhile, is almost not funny at all, which is stunning since this man can be brutally funny. The one sort of interesting scene between the two men is Kline matter-of-factly working with a severed head (don’t ask) while Smith just stares and says “That’s a man’s head” over and over.
The multiple writers credited for Wild Wild West gave me some small hope that there might be real imagination here. Two of the writers also wrote the fun horror-comedy Tremors, about giant sandworms terrorizing a desert town. (That film’s witty casting helped, too, with the always entertaining Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as smart hicks and Reba McEntire as a gun-toting survivalist.) And two of the other writers wrote Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one of my favorite cartoon movies because it was so inventive and smart and refreshingly mature.
“Mature” ain’t the word for this piece of work.
Perhaps the most glaring example of Wild Wild West’s idiocy is its stupid use of sex and sexuality. It is not like the hints of sex in Tarzan (1999), which older audiences members will notice without it being obvious to kids [2009 note: I’m referring to Tarzan taking off Jane’s glove]. In Smith’s first Wild Wild West scene, he’s making cracks about sex while kissing some nameless babe. Later, there’s off-hand treatment of kinkiness like a bordello staffed with – ummm, I probably shouldn’t say. Plus Loveless has one machine which…well, let’s just say the Freudian implications of what it does are staggering. And this made it into a PG-13 film? Smith and Kline don’t get anything more mature, either. At best, all of this is a distraction. At worst, it’s infantile and confused.
This movie shares some major players (director, lead actor, designer) with 1997’s Men In Black, and for the problems I thought Men In Black had – it was mostly setup with not much payoff, which is why I’m looking forward to MIB II [2009 note: silly me] – it emerges in light of Wild Wild West as a more interesting and witty summer blockbuster than usual, starring people who actually seem like adults.
What bothers me most in the end is, there is no real reason for Wild Wild West to exist. The studio wanted to showcase Will Smith; the director seemed to want to remake Ghostbusters (which seemed to be his same goal on Men In Black); the makers felt they’d get the goodwill of fans of the original TV show; the merchandisers wanted to sell toys, food, sunglasses and even lottery tickets. But these reasons do not a movie make.
In other words, why why West?