Wild Wild West (1999)

D: Barry Sonnenfeld
S: Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh

Poorly scripted sci-fi western based upon the short lived 1960s TV series which squanders some evocative set and production designs and potentially enjoyable characters. Will Smith (Independence Day, Men in Black, Enemy of the State) plays a Federal Marshal in 1860s America who is partnered with fellow agent and inventor Kevin Kline (In & Out) on a mission to discover who is behind a rash of mysterious kidnappings of famous scientists. With Salma Hayek in tow, the pair eventually find themselves facing off against wheelchair-bound Kenneth Branagh, a Southern General mutilated during the Civil War with nefarious plans to destroy the United States using state-of-the-art technology.

Unfortunately the small army of credited scriptwriters lack the craftsmanship to meet up to the imagination of the premise, and have cooked up a frankly boring series of clichéd exchanges and an alarming number of penis jokes which leave the audience with nothing to do in between big action scenes. Even more unfortunately, the action scenes themselves are disappointingly routine, beginning with the "runaway stagecoach" bit (done not so long ago in Maverick, and even then it was a limp homage) and building up to a surprisingly uninteresting showdown between a giant mechanical tarantula and DaVinci's flying machine. It is actually quite incredible that the writers have managed to drain such gleefully inane ideas and weird, off-the-wall characters of all of their potential Addams Familyish hip baroque. Everything is reduced to its most mundane and uninteresting level. Predictable dialogue, unmotivated or over telegraphed plot developments and a complete lack of genuine feeling, even for the kind of fun which the film seems to have hoped to be prove only that those who won the writing assignment put in the lowest bid.

It is essentially a live action cartoon, and is probably best suited to children. Given that though, it is surprising how much of the humour revolves around the dichotomy between the mythically well-endowed black character and a literally emasculated white one. There is a disconcerting level of reference to penises, sex and potency, and not one gag even comes close to being as amusing as the throwaway gags on the subject in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. Given that one of the accredited story developers is named "John Thomas", this may be some kind of thematic preoccupation indicative of their mental age, and the film certainly does suggest juvenile writing for a juvenile market. There's nothing wrong with this when done well, but there is a certain skill to making crude jokes work (witness the aforementioned Blazing Saddles), and there is none in evidence here.

Smith does what he can, but he's playing into empty air. Not one of his verbal shots hits home. In being delicate and respectful of his African-American identity while attempting to make jokes at its expense, the writers have tried to play both ends against the middle and left him stranded. He's no Cleavon Little, and this film's hypocritical attitude to race serves neither Smith nor the audience well. Kline yet again wastes his considerable talents by overplaying against Smith's blasé swagger, and comes off rather too effeminate for the constant gags about cross dressing to be accidental. Someone is making a bad joke at his character's expense and we are asked to laugh at him too often for him to have a chance of generating respect and/or interest. Hayek is the most stunningly poor of the major characters, reduced to a series of wide-eyed, breathless one-liners which one hopes will eventually prove to have been some kind of cover up for intelligent motivations. Alas she remains dumb all the way despite some stupid and tenuous attempts to explain why she's there at all. Evidently she was cast so that the sight of her buttocks would give ten year old boys an insight into femininity which The Phantom Menace did not. Kenneth Branagh tries very hard to make his creepy spider-obsessed character a suitably grotesque and otherworldly creation, and, aided by Deborah Scott's costumes, Martin Samuel's hairstyle and the lovely set designs, he comes off relatively well. But in the absence of genuine competition from the good guys, he's as lost as Smith.

Barry Sonnenfeld has had a good ride since breaking loose from the Coen Brothers, but it has come to a crashing halt here and the hands of one of the most poorly judged and lazily written scripts of recent years. But unlike Joel Schumacher overwhelming himself in Batman and Robin and Jeremiah Chechik wandering lost in the labyrinth of The Avengers, Sonnenfeld is not entirely to blame. Individual scenes are handled as well as can be expected. Sonnenfeld patiently lays them one aside the other and works towards the climax in a workmanlike fashion. There's visual style to spare and the cinematography captures the cool blacks and metallics very well. There's even a fairly rousing score by Elmer Bernstein and a snazzy credits sequence, and the film has been manicured to the max. But nothing on screen is interesting. Nothing that happens engages us. Nothing that is said is funny. The characters are boring, the dialogue is weak, the structure of the film is arbitrary and the action perfunctory. If Sonnenfeld is to be blamed, it is as producer, allowing a prepackaged merchandising concept and some promising ideas to go to script in this fashion. Obviously interested in the technical challenge of making sure it all happened, he has lost sight of the basic ineptitude with which it has been written. This is becoming increasingly characteristic of American directors in the late twentieth century. George Lucas may have made the most high profile blunder of the bunch, but this film proves he is not alone. Wild Wild West is the worst film of the year so far, and though it still does not sink quite so low as Batman and Robin and Deep Impact (if only for its designs and Branagh's earnest work) it certainly ranks among the worst of the decade as well.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.