Wednesday June 30, 1999
Like the curious children they often resemble, filmmakers can be fatally distracted by toys. Big, expensive toys that are no doubt enormous fun to play with in person but don't register quite the same way on screen. Toys like the ones that dominate and finally destroy "Wild Wild West."
Few things are potentially more dangerous to the health of a studio picture than giving a director and a star enough rope to hang themselves. With the hugely (and deservedly) successful "Men in Black" behind them, Barry Sonnenfeld and Will Smith were granted carte blanche this time around, not to mention a $100-million-plus budget, considerably larger than what the entire four years of the '60s TV series everything is based on originally cost.
The result is that "Wild Wild West" gets its proportions wrong. As clumsy and top-heavy as the 80-foot-high mechanical tarantula that is its prize special effect, the film sacrifices playfulness and humor to concentrate on a relentless display of elaborate but ho-hum gadgets and gizmos. The subversive sense of fun that's marked almost all of Sonnenfeld's work, not to mention Smith's, is just about buried under the output of obsessive inventors run amok.
Television origins notwithstanding, "Wild Wild West" plays more like a pinball machine than something made for a screen of any size. It's loud and busy, with frequent explosions and brawls standing in for blinking lights and ringing bells. And not even the ministrations of six credited writers (story by Jim Thomas & John Thomas, screenplay by S.S. Wilson & Brent Maddock and Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman) can give it a story or dialogue worth paying more than sporadic attention to.
That is especially unfortunate because in Smith as Capt. James West and Kevin Kline as Artemus Gordon, "Wild Wild West" has co-stars who are capable of much better. Neither one, however, gets to play to his strength long enough to make a difference.
While the TV show had West and Gordon as collaborating Secret Service agents, the movie functions as kind of a prequel, showing how the two men, one in the U.S. Army and the other a U.S. Marshal, came to work together.
That idea originated with President Ulysses S. Grant (played here by Kline as well), understandably perturbed by a letter announcing he'll be called upon to hand over the country to an unknown party in a week. Sensing a connection between the note and a run of disappearances of key American scientists, Grant orders West and Gordon to collaborate in solving the mystery.
Naturally, these two prima donnas don't get along. West is Mr. Action, described as someone who will "shoot first, shoot later, shoot some more and when everyone's dead ask a few questions." Gordon, by contrast, is the cerebral type, a believer in disguise and the kind of inventor who hides knives in the soles of people's boots. "I think," West truly tells him, "you underestimate the convenience of a pocket."
Just because "Wild Wild West" is the disappointment it is doesn't mean you come out with anything against Smith. As innately likable an actor as today's Hollywood has, he is simply not playing to his strength here, concentrating on being steely and resilient when the film is dying on the vine for want of genuine humor. Similarly, Kline, a marvelous farceur, has one or two amusing moments but is often called on to play things so blandly that he almost disappears from the screen.
Joining this pair on the hunt is Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek), who wins the boys' sympathy by telling them her father is one of the kidnapped scientists. A popular ingenue these days, Hayek is capable enough in what may be an abbreviated role (a scene involving a horde of spiders that appeared prominently in reports from the set is not in the film), but her character is used mainly as an excuse for tired double-entendre jokes and peek-a-boo glimpses of her body.
The trail to what's menacing the country leads through former Confederate Gen. "Bloodbath" McGrath (Ted Levine) to the evil genius himself, Dr. Arliss Loveless, an unrepentant son of the South who gave half his body to "The Cause" and now tools around in a kind of electric cart. As strenuously overplayed by Kenneth Branagh in an insufferable accent, Loveless likes nothing better than to trade mild racial and disability insults with West. It's about as funny as it sounds.
Like West's partner Gordon, Loveless is also a mad inventor (his inspirations look like they were constructed from a malevolent Erector set), and between the two of them they litter the screen with all manner of misbegotten inspirations. Fewer of these would have gone a much longer way, but, like a headstrong runaway train, "Wild Wide West" is determined to hurtle down the wrong track, full speed ahead.
Wild Wild West, 1999. PG-13, for action violence, sex references and innuendo. A Peters Entertainment/Sonnenfeld-Josephson Production, in association with Todman, Simon, LeMasters Productions, released by Warner Bros. Director Barry Sonnenfeld. Producers Jon Peters, Barry Sonnenfeld. Executive producers Bill Todman Jr., Joel Simon, Kim LeMasters, Tracy Glaser, Barry Josephson. Screenplay S.S. Wilson & Brent Maddock and Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman. Story by Jim Thomas & John Thomas. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Jim Miller. Costumes Deborah L. Scott. Music Elmer Bernstein. Production design Bo Welch. Art director Tom Duffield. Set decorator Cheryl Carasik. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. Will Smith as James West. Kevin Kline as Artemus Ward/President Grant. Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Arliss Loveless. Salma Hayek as Rita Escobar. Ted Levine as Gen. McGrath.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times