Wild Wild West (1999) – Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld – Starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Salma Hayek, Kenneth Branagh, M. Emmett Walsh, Bai Ling, and Ted Levine.
Sometimes a really talented and eclectic cast comes together and makes something magical.
This is not one of those times.
Oh, was that an obvious, easy, and incredibly lame attempt at humor? Well, imagine that for 105 minutes and you’ve got WILD WILD WEST, a film with lots of talent and not much to admire. Here’s what I like: Kevin Kline as President Grant. Here’s what I don’t like: almost everything else.
This is not to say that WILD WILD WEST isn’t worth a watch, because the effects are nice, the steampunk look is kinda cool, it’s paced exceedingly well, and … um, well, you get to see half of Salma Hayek’s ass. WILD WILD WEST almost works as a sort of bright, stupid, exaggerated cartoon, but it fails even in that regard because as evil as Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) is, it gets a little old listening to Jim West (Will Smith) make crack after crack about Loveless missing his legs and Loveless making racial crack after racial crack at West’s expense. The jokes just aren’t that good, so it’s like listening to two idiots on the playground picking the most obvious target of their opponent and hitting it repeatedly.
The biggest problem with WEST, however, is that there is almost zero chemistry between Smith and Kevin Kline – at least, when Kevin Kline is playing Artemus Gordon instead of the President. Their team-up is just too manufactured – West is the headstrong, shoot first gunslinger and Gordon is the contemplative, shoot never scientist – and Smith and Kline just don’t compliment each other at all. It’s clear that Sonnenfeld is trying to replicate his Men in Black success by having Will Smith’s personality team up with a straight-laced white guy, but where the hardness of Tommy Lee Jones made for an appropriate foil for Smith, Kevin Kline’s comedic dopiness doesn’t.
Forget that nothing here feels like a Western, nothing here feels like it belongs together. Smith and Kline never get on the same page, and their silly, childish bickering throughout the film gets old before it even gets going.
It’s probably unfair to blame one of them over the other, but the problem is Smith’s Jim West. While there are plenty of problems with the conception of Kline’s Artemus Gordon, at least that character is consistent through the film. Smith’s West, on the other hand, is here and there, shifting between sullenness at the memory of his parents murder and making cheap jokes at someone else’s expense. Because the film isn’t all that interested in being serious, the treatment of West’s parents feels like it’s been shoehorned into the movie just because someone thought, “Hey, we need to have a serious back story.”
“Um … because we did that in Men in Black?”
The film would’ve been better without it, because the introduction of this story angle – that Loveless was responsible for the murder of an entire freed black town, including West’s parents – makes this a revenge flick, which puts that subplot at odds with the generally comedic presentation of the rest of the film.
Unfortunately for Smith (and us), a film like this needs a rock-solid center for the zaniness of the rest of the film to work against. Smith has an incredibly likable and personable persona, but the film would’ve been better toning Smith’s charm down and being the straight man to all of Sonnenfeld’s gags. Instead, Smith and Sonnenfeld conspire to have Jim West be the super-cool, self-contained gunslinger in one scene and the “I can’t believe this is happening!” screamer in the next. Compare that to Kline’s take on President Grant, who stoically stands there, facing down Loveless’ giant steampunk spider while everyone else runs away screaming. With Smith’s West, there’s just too much performance in the performance, and if he could have toned down his act, and made us believe in this character’s quest for revenge …
Well, maybe the studio thought that if you’re going to hire Will Smith, you might as well get Will Smith to do all the things that make people pay to see a Will Smith movie.
It’s a shame because Smith is obviously a talented, if non-risk-taking, performer.
None of this is to suggest that the fault for this entire movie lays at Smith’s feet. As I mentioned earlier, there’s no chemistry at all between Smith and Kline, and the awful script couldn’t have inspired them to give much of a crap beyond their professionalism. There’s a lot of infantile boob jokes (including the title of this review, which is one of the funnier lines in the film), including a numbing scene where they play a game of “touch my breast” with the fake boobs Gordon has made for his women’s costume.
Because he’s a master of disguise. He’s terrible at it, but I suppose that’s supposed to be funny.
Salma Hayek is a bright spot playing Rita, who cons the two guys into helping her by playing the damsel in distress. She tells them she wants to find her father, but it’s really her husband she’s after, and her eye-batting, exaggerated performance generally works to pit the two guys against each other. But it’s not nearly enough. Kenneth Branagh tries, too, in a truly ridiculous role that he nonetheless commits to playing to the nth degree, and it looks like he’s enjoying a chance to ham it up in what he realizes is a silly role in a silly movie.
Looking back at when WILD WILD WEST was released, I think part of the intensity of the negative reaction was that in 1999 it didn’t seem like Smith could do anything wrong, but then he releases a bad movie and a bad theme song, and it all felt a little too calculated. In hindsight, WILD WILD WEST is not a good film (and it’s especially not a good western as it feels about as “western” as Star Trek‘s alien planets feel alien – like it was all done on a sound stage), but it’s not the worst movie ever made, nor the worst movie any of the main actors associated with the film ever made. It’s just a bad film, and a misstep in Smith’s career. Obviously, the guy’s done okay for himself since then so he probably learned some lesson from making a bad movie, but I wish the lesson learned had got him to actually accept roles like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and stop taking roles like Hitch.
Because Hitch really, really blows.
I need to take back the crack I made at WEST during my Jonah Hex review, which I titled, “Less Sucky than Wild Wild West, More Sucky Than Everything Else.” It’s more like a suckiness tie, really. My bad!
At least WILD WILD WEST has Ted Levine in it, so at the very least you can make the film better by adding, “Put the f*cking lotion in the basket!” or “Monk!” after every sentence he utters.