Wild Wild West (1999)

This week's summer-movie shocker?  That WILD WILD WEST doesn't 
suck *nearly* as much as expected.  Warner Brothers' latest star-
studded, stunt-driven, big-sets-on-bigger-budgets, cool-cats-in-
cooler-threads-with-the-coolest-toys, action-comedy-franchise-
wannabe is a mess, I'll Ulysses S. Grant you that, but it's also 
*exceptionally* funny.  Call this one a comedy that just happens 
to have gunfights, fistfights, train chases, exploding saloons, 
and one 80-foot steam-powered mechanical tarantula.  (It shoots 
fireballs, too!)

Most of the mayhem is masterminded by Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth 
Branagh), a wheelchair-bound, blank-below-the-waist, half-man-in-
black who wants an unconditional surrender of the United States.  
(Or so he says in his hammy Southern accent.)  In the opposite 
corner are Will Smith and Kevin Kline as the good guys-- a shoot-
first special agent (Smith as James West) paired by Presidential 
order with a violence-abhorring inventor slash master of disguise 
(Kline as Artemus Gordon).  (Do *not* miss their discussion on the 
firmer points of fake breasts.)

The catch-as-catch-can plot involves their tracking of a smaller 
fish (Ted Levine, deliciously disfigured as a Civil War vet) and 
how the findings upstream relate to the mysterious disappearances 
of the nation's top scientists.  It ain't the most exciting story, 
mind you.  Not narratively speaking.  WWW is far closer to (and 
far more successful as) a strung-together series of skits and set 
pieces.  Ergo, lots of stunts, lots of jokes, the occasional char-
acter in drag, and a bunch of neat-o, retro, secret-agent gadgets.  
(Alas, no shoe phones.)

The strongest chemistry is between Smith and Kline.  Their comic 
timing is impeccable.  Thank *you* Mr. Director (MEN IN BLACK's 
Barry Sonnenfeld) for permitting the pair so many scenes of pure 
comedy.  (Not to mention a few scenes of pure *physical* comedy.  
All that's missing from a "magnetic collar" bit is a box labeled 
"ACME.")  Racism is also addressed and in a manner so playful that 
even the P-est of C's may catch themselves chuckling.  (Will Smith 
as Cleavon Little in an update of BLAZING SADDLES?  I could see 
WILD WILD WEST also looks great, with fabulous costumes and Bo 
Welch's enormous, expansive sets.  (How 'bout those "paintings" in 
Loveless' office?)  Best of all, I suppose, are the creepy/sexy/
slimy touches brought to the screen by ADDAMS FAMILY and ADDAMS 
FAMILY VALUES alumni Sonnenfeld:  severed heads, scantily clad 
hench-women, giant phallic-shaped machines, etc.  Too bad, then, 
that the film's biggest effect is its biggest botch.  Every scene 
involving the giant eight-legger-- basically the entire last half-
hour of the film-- is coated in a mucky, yucky, computer-induced 
haze.  Ugh.  

On the scene-stealing, scenery-chewing, arch-villainy front, Mr. 
Shakespeare doesn't add a damn thing.  (His chair, his costume, 
and the FX that conceal his lower half are a world more interest-
ing than he.)  Salma Hayek is a bit more fun, contributing some 
sly sex appeal as an almost love interest.  She's a breath of 
fresh...  (And watch your backdoor during the pajama party!)  Ul-
timately, though, it's Will Smith and Kevin Kline who carry the 
show.  They're terrific.  Better than expected and certainly each 
as good as the other.

Bottom line on this one:  it's loud, it's overactive, and, eh, I 
guess it's ultimately no better a piece of filmmaking than any of 
the BATMAN movies.  But it'll make you laugh.  Long, long, and 
often.  And even though I failed to detect the original series' 
theme in Elmer Bernstein's barrel-chested score (grrrrr), I'll 
gladly tip my hat to *any* movie that can take me away from the 
circus.  That is, any movie that makes me forget the hour suffered 
beforehand in radio station-sponsored hell.  We thought the give-
aways would never end...  

Grade: B-

Copyright 1999 by Michael J. Legeros
Movie Hell is a trademark of Michael J. Legeros

Originally posted to triangle.movies as MOVIE HELL: West, Jim West.

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Copyright 2001 by Michael J. Legeros -Movie Hell™ is a trademark of Michael J. Legeros