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The 100




Wild Wild West
(1999)
Reviewed by Chris Edwards
Rating: 3.5 Beans

had planned to trash this movie. I don't mind saying that I prejudged it, wrote a scathing, ten Bean review in my head, and looked at seeing the movie as just a formality. Because I am a "Wild Wild West" purist. I don't mind saying, I'm a longtime fan. I used to pretend I was James West when I was a kid. So I had no doubt that the big-budget summer movie version would totally smear my childhood hero.

Which is exactly what happened. But, what director Barry Sonnenfeld, along with Will Smith, has fashioned is a movie that completely discards every element of the original series. Only a few character names, a few design elements and props, and the train have been carried over. There is simply no way to compare the movie to the series in any respect. It actually helps the movie, in that you're forced to evaluate it on its own, rather than in comparison to the superior original.

So, in those terms, "Wild Wild West" is still a big disappointment. The storyline pits James West and Artemus Gordon against Dr. Arliss Loveless. Loveless has kidnapped a group of scientists, whom he forces to contruct a weapon with which he plans to fragment the United States and return its territories to Europe. Or at least that's what I made of it. It's a slim thread that serves to propel a series of setpieces. All this action is well-done, but mostly unmemorable. And despite the images of sixguns and fastdraws used in the promotion of the movie, there's precious little in the way of conventional western gunplay. There is a lot of gun pointing, though.

Heading up the cast as Jim West, Will Smith comes across like- well, like Will Smith. He mainly adheres to his familiar persona. Sonnenfeld seems to vacillate between keeping his streetwise, modern character in check, and letting it run rampant to generate some laughs. Smith gets to play it grim and driven, dogging Loveless in part because, yes, the Doctor killed his family. But no matter how hard he tries, or how well he wears the sumptuous costumes and fancy gunleather, Will Smith just doesn't pull of the western hero. And not because he's black. There have been black western heroes all the way back to Herb Jeffries, the Bronze Buckaroo. There is no reason why Jim West shouldn't be black-as the movie is written, it can ONLY have a black lead. The problem isn't with Will Smith's skin-it's with his style. He's simply too modern, his sensibility too urban, to make a believable 19th century soldier-cum-spy. If he was trying to play Jim West as a man living in 1869, it doesn't show.

Kevin Kline, though, seems like a good choice for Artemus Gordon, a role originated by the late Ross Martin. Unfortunately, Gordon is written here as a rather arrogant, pushy eccentric. He and West spend most of the movie sparring in the accepted buddy-movie fashion. Their TV counterparts genuinely liked and trusted one another, but this pair's rivalry becomes trying. Artemus also comes equipped with an assortment of gadgets and mantraps that range from silly to stupid.

The biggest letdown of all, though, is Doctor Loveless. On TV, Doctor Miguelito Loveless was played by Michael Dunn, a dwarf who was also a wonderful actor. His Loveless was cunning, brilliant, and a genuine danger to West. For some reason, the film-makers opted not to make their Loveless a dwarf. Whether this was in the name of political correctness, or simply to allow the casting of a name actor in the role, I don't know. But the replacement is not an improvement. This Doctor Arliss Loveless, now an ardent Southern sympathizer, is only half a person, ending at the waist. Kenneth Brannagh plays Loveless, who has been given long hair and some weird facial growth, with the thickest, fakest Southern accent ever documented. And, being a respected actor picking up a big check as the villain in a popcorn movie, he goes way over the top, letting us know how very, very evil he really is. He reminded me of Dennis Quaid in "Great Balls of Fire."

The script tends toward cheap jokes. The writers aimed low with a barrage of breast and ass jokes, plus some crotch material and that stand-by, cross-dressing. And there are several instances in which characters use or display knowledge of Asian martial arts. "A Chinaman taught me that," one kung-fu thug explains. Okay, maybe. But where did Artemus Gordon learn to imitate Bruce Lee? And is it just a rule that if an adventure movie takes place in the late 19th century, there just has to be a flying machine that the heroes ride into action on? See also "Young Sherlock Holmes."

In the end, "Wild Wild West" is your generic big, expensive summer movie. A few unsuited stars in nice clothes, rambling around big, flashy sets, while some giant thing destroys buildings. They've made it before, they'll make it again. Which is too bad, because "Wild Wild West," like "The Avengers" before it, offered so much that could have made a great movie. But instead, there's so little "Wild Wild West" here, you have to wonder why they bothered.


Other reviews for this movie:

Nicholas D'Amico
John Weber




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