Wild Wild West

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring: Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek, M. Emmet Walsh.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for action violence, sex references and innuendo.

Review by Matt Heffernan
July 1, 1999

First off, I would like to say that I have never seen the 1960's TV show that this was based on. Secondly, I would like to state that it shouldn't matter. I'm sure to be in the majority of the audience that will see this movie. A film should be judged on its own merits, and not what has come before. In this case, I couldn't imagine how good that show must have been to make this film have any artistic merit.

But, of course, they weren't exactly going for art here. Wild Wild West was made for the less descriminating pre-teen boy. But it doesn't seem at all ironic that there is enough sexuality and violence to earn this film a PG-13 rating. Besides, that is what the kids want -- and even expect.

Will Smith plays Capt. James West, a Civil War veteran that is on some sort of special assignment in 1869. How a black man would be such a high-ranking officer back then is something I'll have to address later. He is tracking down former Confederate General "Bloodbath" McGrath (Ted Levine), who was responsible for a large massacre during the war. Also tracking him down is U.S. Marshall Artemis Gordon, played by Kevin Kline. Gordon tries to capture him by disguising himself as a very ugly prostitute, but a confused West arrives, and McGrath gets away.

They both return to Washington and President Grant (also played by Kline) teams them up to go to New Orleans where McGrath has teamed up with mad scientist Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), who lost his legs (and several major organs) fighting for the South. How he is still alive is another thing to address later.

West and Gordon find out that Loveless has been kidnapping famous scientists, including a hydraulics expert named Guillermo Escobar. At Loveless's mansion, West and Gordon crash a party he is holding for several foreign dignitaries and prominent Southerners. There they find a caged Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek). She says she heard of a plan that Loveless was going to Utah to confront the President at the dedication of the Transcontinental Railroad. There he intends to have Grant surrender the United States to him.

There are a lot of details involved, many of which deal with extremely complex machinery for the time. This includes tanks, motorcyles, and an 80 foot steam-powered spider. You see, both Gordon and Loveless are gifted inventors. Loveless does get the upper hand by having his own all-star research and development team.

I knew going into this film that there would be a lot of anachronistic technology. I believe that's what the show was about. Sort of like "The Flintstones" updated to the 19th century. I was willing to accept that if (and that's a big IF) it was done in a clever way. Unfortunately, nothing here was done in a clever way. Nearly everything comes out contrived. This was a very talented cast that deserved a better film. Kline and Branagh, especially, appear to really dislike their dialogue. Will Smith is at least used to making bad movies, and this is his worst since Independence Day.

But his previous collaboration with director Barry Sonnenfeld, Men in Black, was not a bad film at all. What went wrong here? Well, four (count 'em, four) screenwriters should have been the first clue. They made an entirely improbable lead character. A runaway slave would not have been in that position. Of course, the film never really addresses that. But it does manage to counter-balance that by making the villain handicapped. That's just one of the many offensive clichés that has plagued film forever.

As I said before, this film is really meant for children. They won't notice the contrivances and clichés. They expect those just as much as the sex and violence.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Wild Wild West (1999)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Wild Wild West (1999) -- VHS
Wild Wild West (1999) -- VHS Widescreen
Wild Wild West (1999) -- DVD
Wild Wild West: Original Motion Picture Score, by Elmer Bernstein -- Compact Disc
Wild Wild West: Music Inspired By The Motion Picture -- Compact Disc


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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan