Staggering into the infamously stacked blockbuster summer of 1999 like a washed up cowpoke with more whiskey in its body than blood came Wild Wild West; a movie that somehow managed to haul its many confounding elements past all manner of studio executives in order to make it to the screen with a budget upwards of $170 million.
The cinema press tends to love a huge flop just as much as audiences hate watching them and the fact that Will Smith’s stranglehold on the Independence Day weekend (or Big Willy’s Weekend as some called it) was loosened considerably by this apparent dumpster fire was ink they were only happy to use.
But years later, is Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black follow up really that b – actually, you know what? Let’s speed this up a little. Yes. The answer is yes.
It’s 1869 and the American Civil War has been over for four years, but that doesn’t mean that secret forces are still at work to ensue the South will rise again. Working at different ends of an insidious plot to bring down the United States, headstrong Army Captain James T. West and intellectual U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon accidentally meet in the middle and its irritation at first sight. Commanded to pool their very different talents by President Ulysses S. Grant (Artemus is an inventor, James just shoots everything), the mismatched couple head off in search of rogue ex-Confederate General “Bloodbath” McGrath who is abducting scientists in the name of the genocidal southern maniac Dr. Arliss Loveless, a engineering genius who lost the entirety of his lower half (including his… you know) during the war.
His plan is to create giant, stamp-y, explode-y weapons of mass destruction (possibly in the shape of a spider) in order to get the USA to surrender and they race to find out his plans before they bare fruit in their tricked out train, The Wanderer. Actually, I say they race, but they spend most of their time arguing and wandering from plot point to plot point thanks to the arrival of Rita Escobar, a woman claiming to be trying to infiltrate Loveless’ inner circle in order to find her kidnapped, scientist father.
Coming into contact with the numerous contraptions created by their adversary built to render them limb from limb, James and Artemus have to learn to co-exist before Dr. Loveless’ greatest invention, a fire spewing robot spider the size of a freakin’ Kaiju, manages to bring the whole damn country to its knees.
In general I’ve always felt Hollywood should take more risks with their bigger productions, but while in the midst of watching Wild Wild West back in ’99 even I thought that making a movie based on a cult tv show that’s almost utterly unheard of outside the US and that not only cross-breeds the western with cartoonish, steampunk sci-fi, but also hopes, with fingers crossed, that the comedy stylings of Smith and Kevin Kline will gel seamlessly was somewhat of a strange recipient of a green light. Presumably the studio executives thought that thanks to MIB, Will Smith + Barry Sonnenfeld + weird = money, but for this kind of movie to work, it needs a script as watertight as a duck’s butthole. Wild Wild West’s script on the other hand is looser than the jowls of a saint bernard and it’s tough not to be rendered dumb struck as everyone involved manages to turn in a movie experience that is by turns disjointed, unfunny and, in some cases, bizarrely offensive.
Big Will tries his best as Bond-a-like James West – and he admittedly looks great in with six shooters and a cowboy hat – but despite the odd great one liner, he’s not really got a whole lot to work with and the character is certainly no Agent K or Stephen Hiller from ID4. On the other hand, Kevin Kline almost has too much to work with; either “hilariously” cross dressing in disguise, screaming endlessly at Smith’s reckless bravado or needlessly playing a dual role as POTUS himself, he puts in serious overtime to make this unwieldy beast of a movie work but to no avail. Faring worst is Salma Hayek’s Rita, who is not much more than a heaving bossom with an accent – but then what do you expect from a story that’s worryingly misogynistic enough to have the villain’s hench women all wearing revealing corsets chiefly because he’s a colossal pervert. Ah, yes – Kenneth Branagh’s Dr. Arliss Loveless; a handicapped, racist, sexual deviant in a stove pipe hat and stunning goatee design who allows his performer carte blanche to voraciously consume the scenery with a preposterous accent. To be fair, the man who has an Oscar nomination for portraying Henry V, is obviously having a ball portraying this reprehensible loony as he whizzes around the place in his steam powered wheelchair. However, his exuberance is kind of cancelled out by the script insisting that having megastar Will Smith and Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh trade insults based on each others race and disability is high comedy and their sparring makes you feel like you’ve somehow fallen through wormhole into another universe. If this scene happened in an R rated action comedy from the 80’s then I could understand it, but having Branagh smugly maintain that his character hasn’t seen General McGrath in “a coon’s age” in a 90’s family blockbuster is just fucking insane. But wait, it gets worse. Behold the earlier sight of a captured West on the verge of being lynched by wealthy Southerners trying to talk his way out of it by apologising for the abolition of slavery – now I’m not super into knee jerk, reactional political correctness and I realise the character is being sarcastic, but what the actual fuck guys?
As you wade through endless slurges of CGI and desperate slapstick you can’t help but wonder if anyone in the production was actually communicating with one another at all – it’s the only explanation I can think of that could explain such a disjointed final product.
So, why the hell did I give this utter dog of a movie two stars? Well, Will Smith’s song is a fucking banger for a start and the western/steampunk designs are actually pretty damn sweet (McGrath’s hearing aid is a gramophone – but if I’m being 100% honest, the extra star goes solely to that fucking robot spider. Christ, I love that thing and if any of you have witnessed Kevin Smith story about working with producer Jon Peters on an aborted Superman project (and if you haven’t, I’d strongly insist you find it on YouTube), you’ll know exactly where the beautifully realised arachnid came from.
Muddled, stupid and stunningly unfunny, Wild Wild West torpedoed a career or two (Sonnenfeld in particular impressively lost his mojo) while putting a bullet in the back of the head of the fantasy western years before Disney’s The Lone Ranger double tapped it to oblivion.
Mild mild mess…