Actors clearly having a ball in 'Wild West,' audience left out of the fun
It is readily apparent that Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh had a ball on the set of "Wild Wild West."
Smith -- playing gun-slinging government agent Jim West -- looks so cool in his leather pants, waistcoat, and bolero jacket and hat, that at one point in the movie he's standing next to the voluptuous and nearly naked Salma Hayek (in a largely ornamental role), and your eyes are drawn to him. It's gotta be fun to look that slick.
Kline gets to play government agent Artemus Gordon, an eccentric inventor and master of disguise, which is right up his alley. He can barely keep from cracking himself up in his introductory scene, vamping around in saloon matron drag and pancake makeup.
As super-villain Dr. Arliss Loveless, a pissed-off, paraplegic Southern soldier bent on a post-Civil War surrender from president Ulysses S. Grant, Branagh deliriously devours scenery like he's at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
It's just too bad director Barry Sonnenfeld ("Men in Black") forgot to invite the audience to the party.
For all its $100 million-plus budget of stunts, ridiculously exaggerated effects and requisite one-liners, "Wild Wild West" somehow manages to be as dull as standing outside a costume ball, pressing your face against the window and watching everyone inside have a good time.
Consisting mostly of recycled Western cliches taken to the n-th degree (insert runaway stagecoach here, inexplicably full of nitroglycerin), the plot is throwaway fare, introduced by clumsy, expository dialogue ("Gentlemen, 10 of America's top scientists have all been kidnapped in the last year...") and designed to draw the shortest line between any two sound bites or stunts.
Barely in the spirit of the late '60s TV adventure-Western on which it is loosely based, "Wild Wild West" doesn't even use the show's unforgettably jaunty theme music but once, for about 10 seconds while Jim and Artie ride across the desert. In its place is cheap, imitation Western melody with the kind of sleepy, saddle sore tempo you'd get if you pushed the "Country" button on a low-end electric piano.
The movie's pacing matches the soundtrack, and even the action sequences have a quicksand quality to them -- the more the movie struggles to seem exciting, the duller it gets.
And boy howdy, does it struggle. With Artie and Loveless both inventors, about one-fourth of the story advancement consists of badly blue-screened action sequences triggered by dialogue that begins "My latest invention is..."
Artemus Gordon, it seems, was responsible for the advent of both the motorcycle and the airplane (he calls it an "Air Gordon" -- get it?). Meanwhile Loveless keeps busy making up for his physical shortcomings by designing idiotically complicated gadgets like steam-powered wheelchairs, magnetic saw blade frisbees and an 80-foot tall mechanical spider -- crewed by bimbo henchbabes in little more than corsets and stockings -- that spits great balls of fire.
(The climax, aped from the snow walker battle in "The Empire Strikes Back," is a showdown between Artie's flying contraption and Loveless' giant, erector set arachnid.)
Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh here. "Wild Wild West" isn't all bad. In fact, the Jules Verne-inspired production design is great eye candy and I really got a kick out of the sense of humor the movie used to addressed the issue of a black lawman in the Old West -- West and Loveless playfully trade biting crippled and colored barbs every time they come face to face.
But those few smart japes -- which somehow manage to be unoffensive -- are really the movie's brightest moments. The rest of the picture disintegrates into little more than a $3 plot, a few fancy stunts and Smith doing his ain't-I-jiggy schtick, never even trying to give Jim West a personality of his own or curb his 1990s dialect for this 1849 movie.
I must confess that, as a fan of the TV version, I wasn't expecting to like this movie. I figured the screenwriters would rape the show for its best elements, then stoke it with paint-by-numbers action and effect sequences, and I was right.
The loopholes are large (the movie would only have been 30 minutes long if the characters had any common sense), the situations trite and prefabricated, the fight scenes absurdly well-choreographed, the resolutions far too easy -- and the movie just never reaches that level of joyous suspension of disbelief that forgives such follies, let alone something as idiotic as that spider.