Ah, the Old West…a time filled with dusty gunslingers, dirty scoundrels, rocket powered bicycles, and giant mechanical machines of destruction. Something is wrong here. That something is the remake of the television series, The Wild Wild West (newly rechristened without the “The”). A nearly incomprehensible action comedy, this new Wild Wild West has plenty of bluster, but no strength to back it up.
James West (Will Smith) is a rarity, a black U.S. Marshal in 1869… one who works prominently in the deep South. Armed with a hip 1990’s attitude, and plenty of big guns, West’s preferred technique is to enter every situation with guns blazing.
Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) is a different kind of Marshal. A master of invention and disguise, Artemus prefers the weapons of subtlety and subterfuge. Naturally, as with all movie partners, he and West rarely get along.
But, following the hoariest of buddy film cliches, the unlikely partners are forced to team up. This time, they must discover why the mysterious Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) has kidnapped the country’s top scientists. President Grant gives the two lawmen one week to decypher the mystery.
The big budget adaptations of campy 1960s TV shows have been spotty at best, and Wild Wild West proves no exception. It’s a film where the plot considerations came secondary to the ambitions of the special effects artists. Overdesigned and underthought, Wild Wild West attempts to patch its threadbare plot with bigger and noisier effects than the TV show could ever match, but the subterfuge doesn’t work.
The effects are done well, but we are long past the era in which good special effects alone could carry a movie. Though they attempt to evoke a James Bond meets Jules Verne flavor, most of the gadgetry simply seems out of place. Perhaps with a better script, the flaws wouldn’t be as obvious.
Conceived as an action comedy, Wild Wild West fails a crucial test: nearly all of its jokes fall flat. There are a few unique sequences that show promise (such as an elaborate trap involving magnetic neck braces, or a surreal sequence involving living paintings), yet they never conclude in a satisfying manner. Instead, the script is packed to the gills with over-obvious race jokes, tiresome drag humor, and an entire series of jokes regarding the ambiguously gay relationship between West and Gordon. (Of course, the film throws in a completely purposeless role for Salma Hayek in an attempt to clarify the situation.)
None of the actors here are even given a chance to shine. Instead, they’re drowned in the overbearing special effects and the chokingly bad attempts at humor. Will Smith is hampered at every turn by awkward explanations of his anachronistic existence, Kevin Kline is overshadowed by his nonstop gadgetry, and Kenneth Branagh’s scenery chewing is allowed to run unabated. No one here is cast in a good light.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld obviously intended this to be a humorous romp ala Men in Black, but this technowestern tale is a ghost town of humor. The incongruous special effects can’t prop up the rickety plot, and as for the rest…well, it’s mild mild.