Wednesday, 8 February 2023

Prime Time: Wild Wild West (1999)

When Wild Wild West was first released, I wasn’t familiar with the TV show it was based on. I just got excited at the prospect of another blockbuster comedy pairing up director Barry Sonnenfeld with Will Smith. I also liked Kevin Kline, a LOT, Kenneth Branagh, and any decent-sized role for Salma Hayek. That excitement may be long gone now, it started to dissipate during my first viewing of the movie, but little else has changed. I am still unfamiliar with the TV show this was based on, and I still like the main cast assembled for it.

Smith plays James West, a skilled and sharp-shooting special agent who ends up partnered with Agent Artemus Gordon (Kline). Gordon prefers to use inventions and disguises to help him achieve his aims, while West prefers a much more direct approach. Both men have to work together as they try to apprehend the devious Dr. Arliss Loveless (Branagh), a man who lost his legs during wartime, but makes up for that handicap with a number of inventions, from a “super-charged” wheelchair to a huge mecha-spider vehicle, that give him an advantage over his enemies. Oh and Salma Hayek plays Rita Escobar, a women who ends up accompanying West and Gordon for part of their journey.

Arguably most famous nowadays for featuring a creation mentioned in a Kevin Smith anecdote (one of the producers on this movie REALLY had a hankering for a giant spider to feature as a third act menace), Wild Wild West is a real oddity. Some of the comedy works, some of the action is nicely put together, and the steampunk element provides some cool visuals, but the very essence of the film seems to work against the charisma of all of the leads.

Smith constantly feels as if he is cosplaying, too cool to play his cowboy in a more straightforward way, Branagh does too much moustache-twirling while murdering his attempt at an American accent, and Kline doesn’t get enough moments to shine, which is even more annoying when you have scenes that fleetingly show just how funny he can be. Hayek is given no real arc, the movie would work just as well without her (although I, for one, am glad she is in it), while there is more care and attention given to supporting turns from Ted Levine, Musetta Vander, and Bai Ling.

There are, as expected, numerous writers credited with the end result here. You get the names of the people who delivered the TV show concept, but you also get S. S. Wilson and Brent Maddock (originators of a certain graboid hit), who then claim that their original screenplay was severely reworked by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman (who only had a couple of other movie writing credits before this, but one of those was Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Whoever was most responsible for it, the end result is a mess, and Somnenfeld is unable to improve it.

The direction is competent, but weighed down by the script. There’s no decision to make someone a straight man, which just leads to the laughs being spread thinner amongst everyone (including Branagh), and thereby ever any real sense of danger. This is a romp, nothing more, and that in itself isn’t a terrible thing. It just also happens to have a few dull patches throughout the runtime, an inability to have more fun with the clash between the traditional Western ways and the technology available to the characters, and even the Elmer Bernstein score can’t help. At least you get to hear the funky Will Smith theme song over the closing credits.

Wild Wild West is a mess, but it is one I feel the need to check in on at least once a decade or so. I always suspect that I am misremembering it, that I like it more than most people. I’m not misremembering it, and I don’t. Although I might be a bit more generous to it than most.


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