starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek
screenplay by Brent Maddock, S.S. Wilson, Peter S. Seaman, and Jeffrey Price
directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
by Bill Chambers If you don't think Kevin Kline in drag is funny, wait 'til you see Will Smith in drag--it's even less funny. By the time Jim West (Smith) had disguised himself as a belly dancer to retrieve his captured comrade Artemus Gordon (Kline) from the clutches of evil Dr. Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), I was unequivocally bored with Wild Wild West, the new summer action-comedy from Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld. Is the Old West really a breeding ground for slapstick, anyway? If your answer is yes, you're probably thinking of Blazing Saddles, but Blazing Saddles was a parody of the western genre that also satirized the social climate of 1974, not a nineteenth-century romp in and of itself.
1869. Jim West is a quick-draw lawman who, under orders from President Grant (played by, yes, Kline, who seems to specialize in dual roles where one of them's the head of state), teams up with brainiac federal agent Gordon to apprehend the legless Loveless, a mad inventor plotting to divvy up the United States and sell it back to Britain and Spain. How will Loveless accomplish this? Well, by hulking around the desert in an enormous, mechanical tarantula, of course.
Bosomy dancehall girl Rita Escobar (Hayek), whose scientist father Loveless has kidnapped, joins West and Gordon on their gadget-filled train. Racial politics apparently prevented the filmmakers from pairing dull Rita romantically with West, despite the movie's 'hip' attitude towards the black thang. (West automatically shoots anyone who calls him a "nigger" before that person can get the syllables out. Progress?) In any event, I kept waiting for Rita to join in the banter, but she's a walking dress-up toy. Her single comic moment is also the best shot of the film: She bashfully reveals a bare bum through the peek-a-boo flap of her jammies.
Jim West is the role that finally stymied Will Smith. The actor's timing has always been hit or miss, as a random sampling of episodes of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" will attest. Smith's a better reactor than an actor, which is why he was so thoroughly engaging in Men in Black--he didn't start out a hero there. In Wild Wild West, he's called upon to exude Eastwood cool and amuse at the same time (and from frame one), a difficult feat I'm not sure any living performer could pull off. Smith is ill-equipped, for example, to handle the moment in which Jim West performs stand-up for some rednecks at his own hanging.
What attracted Sonnenfeld to this material? This isn't the first time he's adapted a TV show for the big screen (remember The Addams Family?), but it's the first unqualified stinker of his career as a director. Wild Wild West is poorly-paced bombast, full of DOA gags (Ted Levine shows up as a general using a gramophone horn for a hearing aid; Levine, The Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill, is too intense to elicit an intentional laugh), lousy special effects (the bluescreening is amateurish--foregrounds are often out of whack with the backgrounds), and frequent illogic. To wit, its ridiculous villain so badly wants Jim West out of the way that he...drops him onto a steel platform to do battle with some generic, ugly henchmen instead of shooting him at point-blank range with one of the many guns on board the tarantula.
Wild Wild West's bright spots, such as the cool title sequence, Bai Ling's all-too-brief appearance as a would-be femme fatale, or an ingenious "His Master's Voice" joke, are all part of the film's first half, which is more clever and enjoyable, at least, than its second. When, near what seemed like the end of Wild Wild West, Gordon proposed the idea of building an airplane and West rejected it, there was a collective groan among audience members: It meant we were going to have to sit through another loud action sequence before Gordon builds the glider, the invention of which would inevitably lead to the proverbial whiz-bang finale. Do not go west, young man. Originally published: July 2, 1999.