Film Reviews

Why, Wild West?

It won't take long for anyone familiar with the 1960s Wild, Wild West television series to notice that something isn't right with Barry Sonnenfeld's listless big-screen remake. Yes, the film features Will Smith in the role of James West, and Kevin Kline as his cerebral sidekick Artemus Gordon -- but that's about it. For starters, the filmmakers were unable -- or unwilling -- to use Richard Markowitz's catchy opening theme from the TV show; it appears only briefly, way too late in the film to make a difference. With costs reportedly running as high as $187 million, you'd think the price for the original theme would have been in there somewhere.

The film version also appears immediately inferior to the television series in other ways. One of the most memorable aspects of the original show was its episodic structure. The creators were obviously inspired by the Saturday serials of the 1930s and '40s that ended each week with a cliffhanger. On television, each hourlong show seemed to incorporate several serials, with each segment building to a suspenseful high point. Obviously, Sonnenfeld and his screenwriters didn't have to cut away to a commercial at prescribed intervals, but the film might have been greatly improved if they had remembered the inspiration of the serials and built more highs into their story line. As it is, this version seems remarkably flat, without much suspense along the way to its ultimate climax.

The story, as the film tells it, has West and Gordon come together as partners for the first time by the order of President Ulysses S. Grant (also played by Kline), and it is a meeting of opposites. West has never encountered a fight he didn't want to join; Gordon feels he has failed if the situation deteriorates into violence. West's weapons are a powerful right hand and fast guns, while Gordon prefers to outfox his opponents with his wits or a mind-boggling array of gadgets and disguises.

Like the series that inspired it, Wild Wild West is a modernist western -- meaning, it's James Bond set post-Civil War, full of gadgets and gimmicks and screwy bad guys. In this case, evil is represented by Dr. Arliss Loveless (played by the deliciously wicked Kenneth Branagh), a mad scientist whose ultimate goal is to see the United States of America destroyed and its wealth divided up between himself and his foreign allies.

As the picture opens, Loveless -- a former Rebel officer who had the lower half of his body blown off during the Civil War, forcing him to putt-putt around in a motorized wheelchair -- has kidnapped most of the great scientists of the world and put them to work helping him conquer the country. To accomplish this, Loveless has built a giant galumphing militaristic spider called The Tarantula (which looks mostly like some reject from the Star Wars films) and pointed it in the direction of Utah, where he hopes to intersect with President Grant and force him to turn over the country.

As usual, there are plenty of diversions along the way; actually, that's all there is. There is far too much emphasis on the gadgetry -- The Tarantula, or Gordon's specially outfitted train -- and the bevy of beauties who follow both West and Loveless around. Among them is Salma Hayek, who spends most of her time looking like a refugee from a lingerie layout.

As West, Smith performs with his usual unassailable self-confidence, but there is far less for him to be confident about here than has been the case lately; this ain't no Men in Black, also directed by Sonnenfeld. He looks dapper in Deborah L. Scott's western duds, and he moves beautifully, especially in the action sequences. But for most of the film, Smith is asked to deliver punchlines that no actor alive could make funny. He must also suffer a number of race-baiting lines from Loveless, who at one point welcomes West to a party by observing that he hasn't seen him "in a coon's age." Indeed, their relationship is built on an exchange of racist and disabled insults: Loveless calls West "boy," West tells Loveless he's "stumped," and so forth. It's what passes for wit in this witless redo.

And Kline seems far less comfortable as a sidekick than he did in A Fish Called Wanda or Silverado. He, too, is asked to make hilarious that which is wholly and completely unfunny. After Hayek's arrival, he compliments her by saying she's "a breath of fresh ass." When West points out his mistake, Kline insists what he meant to say was she's "a breast of fresh air." You see the level. Branagh delivers his share of achingly bad jokes and off-color puns in the most egregiously contrived Southern accent, while sporting what must be one of the worst (not to mention most baroque) beards in movie history.

Only those who see Wild Wild West expecting a grand display of special effects, all created to conform to the larger-than-life scale one expects to see in a summer blockbuster, will walk away satisfied. Those expecting the wit and inventiveness of the television series will certainly be disappointed, as will those who expect the hip suavity that one usually gets from any performance by Will Smith. It's not wild wild -- think mild, mild.