Wild Wild West (1999)

Wild Wild West (1999)
  • Time: 107 min
  • Genre: Action | Western | Comedy
  • Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
  • Cast: Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Salma Hayek, Kenneth Branagh


Jim West is a guns-a-blazing former Civil War hero. Artemus Gordon is an inventive U.S. Marshal who excels in disguise. When the United States is threatened by psychotic Confederate Arliss Loveless, President Ulysses Grant teams the duo up to bring him to justice. On a hazard-packed train journey from Washington D.C. to Utah, West and Gordon must combine their skills to best Loveless and his diabolical machines.

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  • “Most impressive, if a little ungainly,” Artemis Gordon (Kevin Kline) remarks upon observing the 80 foot mechanical tarantula that is making its way across the desert. The exact sentiment could extend to Wild Wild West itself, an occasionally enjoyable film version of the popular television series starring the quintessentially cool Robert Conrad as James West.

    The equally cool Will Smith assumes the role of West in Barry Sonnenfeld’s modernization. Smith’s race, of course, adds what should have been an interesting layer to the proceedings. Should have been — the young black man, newly liberated and making his way in the brave new world. But when Sonnenfeld and his four screenwriters refer to the issue, they deflate it with awkward jokes and uneasy dramatic sentiment.

    But that’s the least of the Wild Wild West’s concerns. The country’s greatest scientific minds are being absconded and President Ulysses S. Grant (Kline again) has received a threatening letter from the madman behind the kidnappings. The President enlists his two best operatives — West, the shoot-first-ask-questions-later hotshot and Artemis Gordon, the creative genius who’d rather use his mind than his fists — and forces them to put aside their dislike of each other and work to save the country from total domination.

    Turns out the megalomaniac is the presumed dead Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), the wheelchair-bound, thickly Southern-accented gent with vampire-black hair setting off his bloodless skin. No spleen, no lung, no legs but Loveless has machinery in his power and a quartet of deadly beauties — the seductive Miss East (Bai Ling), the brainy Miss Lippenreider (Sofia Eng), the powerful Amazonia (Frederique van der Wal) and Munitia (Musetta Vander), the weapons expert — at his disposal.

    When Loveless and West square off, the film hits its stride. Their first face to face meeting is an exchange of barbs — West pointing out Loveless’s legless state, Loveless picking on West’s racial background. Otherwise, we just have the stars filling a cluttered screen — Salma Hayek tries to inject some fire as the lovely Rita Escobar but she’s working with a barely developed character and so ends up merely decorative; Kline puts on a bunch of disguises and wastes his impeccable comedic skills; when not interacting with Smith, Branagh merely camps it up — though he, at least, appears to be having a good time of it.

    Sonnenfeld relies too much on the charisma of our Mr. Smith. On the one hand, who can blame him — no one shines so universally as Will Smith. His confidence is smile-provoking rather than off-putting and his sheer energy makes scenes like West talking his way out of a lynching more funny than they were written. On the other hand, there’s only so much suaveness and bravado he can summon to cover the fact that, while Wild Wild West is not as disastrous as the execrable The Mod Squad, it is not half as fun as Smith and Sonnenfeld’s previous collaboration, Men in Black. That film had a buoyancy and joy that Wild Wild West lacks.

    But back to the mechanical tarantula which dominates the last act of the film. Here is where the explosions appear and the film finally comes to consciousness. It was a good effort but as history has proved, technology and untamed territory do not a good marriage make.

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