Wild Wild West (1999)    1 Stars

“On July 2nd, it’s a whole new west.”

Wild Wild West (1999)
Wild Wild West (1999)


Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

Cast: Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh

Synopsis: The two best hired guns in the West must save President Grant from the clutches of a nineteenth-century inventor-villain.

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Barry Sonnenfeld and Will Smith (Bad Boys, Enemy of the State) must have thought they were on to a sure-fire winner when they reunited for Wild Wild West just two years after scoring a worldwide hit with Men in Black.   The movie had a ready-made audience with fond memories of the 1960s TV show on which it was based, a $100 million budget, a strong cast and a quirky steam-punk angle which would both remain true to, and update, the show’s fondness for gadgets – what could go wrong?   Well history shows us all too clearly.   Wild Wild West was savaged by the critics, and barely broke even in the US.   It won five Razzies, which Robert Conrad, the star of the ‘60s TV version, accepted as a symbolic demonstration of his disgust at what Sonnenfeld and team had done to his baby.   Even the director and most of the leads have declared their dislike of the movie at one time or another– as if they somehow had no part to play in its making.

Is it really that bad?   Well no, not really.   It’s not a great movie, that’s for sure, and how much you enjoy – or dislike – it depends on whether you’re familiar with the TV show.   Although he’s a charming, likeable actor, Will Smith is a poor choice for the lead role of former Army captain Jim West simply because of the colour of his skin.   The movie acknowledges this fact by repeatedly playing on the absurdity of racial stereotyping for comic effect, a ploy which achieves little other than to distance it from the TV series.   Artemus Gordon, the US Marshal with a knack for inventing useful gadgets with whom West shares his adventures, is played by Kevin Kline, who musters as much dignity as he can in a role that amounts to little more than that of supporting sidekick to Smith.

The plot pits them against the dastardly megalomaniac Dr. Arliss Loveless (British actor Kenneth Branagh, who seems to be having a whale of a time), who left half his body on a Civil War battlefield, and considers surrender to the North as a personal betrayal.   Having kidnapped the country’s finest scientists and forced them to design a formidable war machine, he’s planning to overthrow the US government and sell any part of it he doesn’t want to Mexico, France and Spain.   West and Gordon are at loggerheads for most of the movie – another bone of contention for fans of the TV show – having been forced to team up by President Ulysses Grant (also Kline), and their mutual enmity, which is only overcome once Loveless is defeated, is only deepened by the exotic Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek – After the Sunset, Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!), the daughter of one of the kidnapped scientists, who accompanies them on their quest.

Although it’s true that Wild Wild West falls far short of the expectations of moviegoers (and, no doubt, the ambitions of its makers) and bears all the signs of some desperate tinkering, it’s not a total loss.   It begins brightly and with promise, and Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs, Heat) as Captain ‘Bloodbath’ McGrath, a Civil War vet whose missing ear has been replaced with a miniature ear trumpet screwed to the side of his head, makes an agreeably grungy villain (a sight gag involving his trumpet and a curious dog proves to be the movie’s high point).   The alternative historical universe in which West and Gordon operate is initially intriguing and entertaining, but the plot goes nowhere fast, and although Branagh’s over-the-top performance entertains, the film loses its way the more his character comes into it.   And somehow things eventually deteriorate so badly that by the final reel we’re subjected to the dismal sight of Will Smith in a belly dancer’s outfit equipped with a bra that doubles as a flamethrower.   And you don’t need to be a seasoned moviegoer to know that’s not a good sign…

(Reviewed 5th January 2016)

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