Wild Wild West (review)

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Mild Mild West

If ever anyone deserved his movie-stardom and his $20 million paychecks, it’s Will Smith. Onscreen, he’s got charm, charisma, personality, and an infectious grin, plus he’s cute as a button and seems not to take himself too seriously. I, for one, can’t not watch him up on that big screen.

Even Will Smith can’t save Wild Wild West.

I can’t remember the last time I was so disappointed in a movie. Sure, just a few weeks ago I went into The Thirteenth Floor hoping for something worthy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and was bummed to find a flick more forgettable than so-bad-it’s-funny. But that’s not quite the same thing. With Wild Wild West, I was expecting a worthy follow-up to the last Barry Sonnenfeld/Will Smith outing, Men in Black, which made me laugh more than any other movie in recent years. I was expecting to find a big-screen version of two recent, all-too-short-lived TV series: Legend and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., smart, fun shows that had obviously been inspired by the gadget-crazed, tongue-in-cheek Wild Wild West series of the 60s.
Instead, as we stumbled, bereft, from the multiplex, a friend of mine commented sadly that this has been a lousy summer for movies. I don’t know if that’s true (this same friend and I have seen The Mummy and The Phantom Menace way too many times together), but it’s an indication of how high our expectations for Wild Wild West were, and how much they were let down. I mean, if you can’t expect a cracking popcorn flick from Will Smith on Independence Day weekend, what can you count on?

I knew, however, from the opening credits, that we were in trouble. Something like half a dozen names are listed under Story and Screenplay. This is never a good sign. And sure enough, the movie feels cobbled together, characters are inconsistent, and action set pieces dominate over any attempt at a cohesive or original story.

The year is 1869. A hotshot agent for the U.S. Army, James T. West (Smith, from Enemy of the State), and inventor and U.S. marshal Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline, from Fierce Creatures and The Ice Storm) team up reluctantly to find America’s top scientists, all of whom have been kidnapped by ex-Confederate general Bloodbath McGrath (Ted Levine, so mesmerizing in The Silence of the Lambs and Moby Dick, and utterly wasted here). As Jim and Artie suspect, McGrath is in the employ of mad genius Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh, embarrassingly over-the-top), who has set up his own Manhattan Project, forcing the scientists to build an ultimate weapon to allow Loveless, a Southerner, to exact his revenge on the United States government for the Confederacy’s recent defeat.

Yawn. It’s not that the story itself is particularly boring, but the execution is. How can a movie chock full of runaway horses, explosions, wacky gadgets, fights atop moving trains, and gun battles feel so static? The problem is the slim story: So much of the movement onscreen is pure padding that through it all, you’re still just waiting for something to happen. For all the kinetics, the movie is sorely lacking in energy. The terrific trailer for Wild Wild West packed a bigger wallop than the movie itself.

West is a stellar example of how a bad script can sink a movie, no matter who’s starring, who’s directing, and how much stuff blows up. The movie’s linchpin should have been the relationship between Jim and Artie — certainly if you’re looking to set up a franchise, as West‘s lame ending clearly indicates is the case here. But Smith and Kline have no chemistry, and I don’t think it’s their fault. The script simply gives them little to work with — you get the feeling that they’re merely being pulled along by the movie’s contrived events instead of seeing their actions and personalities causing things to happen. And they’re given little genuine interaction — the few moments when you see a hint of how good West could have been come from brief flashes of actual conflict between these two very different men.

But the worst example in the character department is Rita (Salma Hayek, from 54). A showgirl with a personal interest in finding the missing scientists, she tags along with Jim and Artie in their quest — invariably, they fight for her romantic attentions. Rita is so inconsistent a character — and again, this is not Hayek’s fault — that it’s jaw-dropping. She turns on a dime from being brave and clever, to being stupid and cowardly, to being smart and conniving, as suits the poorly written script. And she tells a lie in the beginning of the film regarding her desire to find the scientists that serves no purpose whatsoever except to ensure that Jim and Artie can argue over whom she likes more. What the hell was a director like Sonnenfeld, who handled a clever and intricate script like that for Get Shorty with aplomb, thinking? The contempt for the audience displayed in Wild Wild West is breathtaking.

There’s only one really good thing about Wild Wild West, and that’s the clothes. Will Smith looks fabulous, darling, in his black suit, black hat, and dark glasses, riding his black horse. But that ain’t worth the price of admission.

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