REVIEW: Wild Wild West [1999]

Score: 3/10 | ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 106 minutes | Release Date: June 30th, 1999 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Barry Sonnenfeld
Writer(s): S.S. Wilson & Brent Maddock and Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman /
Jim Thomas & John Thomas (story) / Michael Garrison (characters)

“Never drum on a white lady’s boobies at a big redneck dance”

Let’s just say that Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise dodged a bullet by backing out of Wild Wild West during its seven-year gestation. Its script probably wasn’t nearly as off-the-wall goofy at the start considering their clout as actors, but I highly doubt either would have been up for the parody it became. While the 90s were all about the television adaptation anyway—Gibson went on to do the lackluster Maverick and Cruise the effective Mission: Impossible—I’m not sure any went quite so far into left field as this one. When you’re trying to match the lightning in a bottle that was Men in Black, though, I guess you’re willing to do anything. And with a massive $170 million budget, why not include a computer generated giant Erector Set spider for kicks?

Maybe Tony’s Food Service was too good to pass up or perhaps 90% of the budget went directly into the actors’ pockets. Either way I’d love to hear them talk about what drove each to actually say yes—director Barry Sonnenfeld too—because their script reads could not have instilled confidence unless of course it was still being rewritten on the fly. Scratch that. The better story would be if Kenneth Branagh not only willingly agreed to play a megalomaniacal paraplegic with goofy facial hair and a hammy Southern accent, but also pitched every zany detail himself to have fun for a couple months. The unfortunate reality of the situation is, however, that while it appears everyone had a blast on set being as weird as can be, I couldn’t wait for the adventure to end.

I know I’m not alone in this thinking, but you’d be surprised how many exist on the other side of the argument too. That’s inherently par for the course when you’re dealing with “so bad it’s good” type films. Those who are in on the joke can see past limitations and absurdity while those who aren’t can’t help take it all as a missed opportunity and tonal abomination. My girlfriend—one of its unabashed champions—said it best describing the whole affair as a live action cartoon because that’s exactly how it feels. Hell, it even looks like an animated project considering the amount of its runtime that’s simply actors in a studio behind a green screen. It seemed like we were joking about how the characters were walking towards a matte painting every ten minutes.

And how can you not think cartoon when looking at Branagh’s over-the-top, over-arching villain Dr. Arliss Loveless? He’s all maniacal laugh; extremely expressive facial features rivaling Steve Martin doing his “wild and crazy guy” shtick; and the comical decision to place his torso atop a mechanical steampunk wheelchair with whirling doo-dads. His insanity helps dream up insane inventions much like good guy counterpart Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) and the production designer had a blast cooking each up. I half expected the movie to devolve into an episode of “Robot Wars” as a result: Gordon’s tricked-out locomotive bending Transformers-style into a brassiere-wearing behemoth to rival Loveless’ humungous tarantula. But alas, even Wild Wild West has its limits. It may be stupid for stupidity’s sake and rife with puns of all shapes and sizes, but it knew its tipping point.

Instead it becomes a revenge fantasy for main hero Captain Jim West (Will Smith) who’s assigned by President Grant (played by Kline for a repeated joke throughout the film) to do exactly what his heart wants: take down General “Bloodbath” McGrath (Ted Levine) and in turn his boss Loveless. Throw in the generic “I work alone” cliché for both West and his reluctant partner Gordon and you get clashing egos, quippy one-liners, and a wealth of sexually laced humor whether it concern whores, homosexuality, or over-compensating masculinity. While everything is ultimately done for the laugh in this regard, it’s sadly not a joke to which I found worth giving one. No, my reaction throughout was more of the eye-roll variety. I allowed myself a few smiles, but not nearly enough.

Add in sexy lingerie models doing Loveless’ bidding in what’s almost a precursor to Robert Rodriguez‘s penchant for scantily-clad bad ass women; Salma Hayek‘s sidekick who could have been excised without losing anything, Rita Escobar; and the required for its setting lynch mob and you have the lowest common denominator comedy allowing it to have been a commercial success. I just rarely found myself laughing with the film as opposed to at it whether Kline crocheting chainmail, Levine being grotesquely fitted with an earwax horn (earning biggest eye-roll thanks to an RCA Victor gag), living portraits that house assassins, or Hayek’s bare behind. I felt sorry for Smith and Kline almost from the start—the former Wilhelm screaming throughout and the latter hidden under prosthetics for the majority.

No matter how dumb—or witty if you’re a fan—it was by wearing everything on its sleeve with a knowing wink that never quite opened far enough to be more than a twitch, Wild Wild West does provide one mystery to last the ages. And no, it’s not pertinent to the thin plot considering Kline verbally recaps the movie before its climax anyway. Actually, there’s a good chance I zoned out and missed the answer to my question when Loveless’ map of New America flashed across the screen. Maybe it was a remnant of an old draft, an intentional distinction conjured to get audience members scratching their heads and laughing in the process, or perhaps an errant, historical inside joke that went over my head. Either way, inquiring minds want to know: Who gets Manhattan?

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