Wild Wild West

Giant mechanical tarantulas. Crude flying machines. Damsels in distress. Literal booby traps. This isn’t your parents “Wild Wild West.” While the latest big screen adaptation of another 1960’s television show is no better or worse than the original, it’s also not the cattle prod up the butt that most critics are claiming it to be.

Instead of seeing the film at a studio screening, where most of the audience had already been predisposed to hate the film, I caught it at a local afternoon matinee, and the bottom line is that the audience ate “Wild Wild West” up.

I did to. I enjoyed the film, despite some clumsy plotting. The film is wildly entertaining, a pleasing mix of genres that demand nothing more than to entertain the masses. Even before the film came out, I heard other critics wish out loud that the film would bomb.

Some don’t like Will Smith, and feel that his reign as a popular box office idol is unwarranted. Others just don’t like popcorn movies, films whose only goal is to entertain. These are the same critics who took a dump all over “Independence Day,” and now have both barrels aimed at “Wild Wild West.”

Ignore them. Instead, give the film a chance, and like the audience that I saw the film with (and who stayed until the final credits rolled), you’ll probably enjoy yourself.

Since its debut in the 1960s, I’ve been a fan of the original series. Who could deny themselves the pleasure of watching government agents James West and Artemus Gordon foil the bad guys each and every week on television?

The film version of “Wild Wild West” serves as a prequel of sorts for the series. West and Gordon haven’t even met when the film begins, but it is not long before they’re on the trail of a maniacal madman intent on taking over the new United States.

“Wild Wild West” begins with a catchy teaser. A man wearing a metal collar that resembles two mini satellite dishes is seen running for his life. In the background, we hear a whizzing noise, and it is not long before we realize what the noise belongs to. It’s a flying disc, a saw-blade like device that is attracted to the metal collar. Before you can say Monica Lewinsky, the man has lost his head.

The scene freezes and becomes a drawing, much like the opening of the original series. Immediately, a sense of nostalgia kicks in. The writers, S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman (from a story by Jim & John Thomas), pay homage to the original series every chance they get, yet leave enough room for director Barry Sonnenfeld to give the film its own identity.

Will Smith, who teamed up with Sonnenfeld on “Men in Black,” is very engaging as Jim West, ladies man and government agent, sort of like James Bond in chaps. West is on the trail of former Confederate butcher General “Bloodbath” McGrath (Ted Levine, totally unrecognizable), who is in the middle of a large arms trade. When McGrath’s men arrive to secure the weapons, West is engaged in a little moonlight dip with a honey in the water tower, but it’s not long before he literally falls into action.

West ends up a local saloon where McGrath and his men anxiously await the shipment, unaware that government agent Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) is working undercover as a saloon hostess. Also on the premises is Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek), who pretends to be a showgirl but has another motive for being there.

All hell breaks loose in the saloon, which is watched on with bemusement by Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), the madman who set up the trade. The victim of a nasty accident that has left him half a man (literally), Loveless is filled with resentment against the government. With the help of McGrath and several notable scientists that he has kidnaped, Loveless plans to take back the United States for himself and his benefactors.

All good action films have to have a great villain, and Loveless more than fits the bill. Branagh does everything except twirl his mustache.

West and Gordon team up when President Grant (Kline once again) assigns them to stop Loveless before he succeeds. As is common with all buddy films, there is friction at the outset, which turns to mutual respect and admiration when the going gets tough. At first West is bemused by Gordon’s eccentric inventions, but comes to respect them when they end up saving their lives more than once.

“Wild Wild West” is never boring as West and Gordon go from one cliff hanger to the next, finally ending up in the middle of the desert where they encounter Loveless and his latest invention, a giant mechanical tarantula complete with an advanced weapon system.

The pit stops in between are most engaging, including a costume ball in Louisiana, and a lengthy ride aboard a train that Gordon has rigged with all sorts of extras.

My only complaint with the film is that Hayek’s character seems like added baggage where none is needed. What good is a villain without a damsel in distress, and while Hayek more than fulfills on that promise, he role isn’t very well written, leaving her out of the loop most of the time.

Smith is so likeable and engaging that you instantly identify with his character. The writers understand Smith, and give him enough room to maneuver. West’s first confrontation with Loveless is priceless.

Kline is perfect as Gordon, a man who would rather diffuse a situation with one of his contraptions rather than a gun. When Kline dresses up a like a woman (don’t worry, Smith gets to go drag as well), you can sense him winking at the camera. Hey, I may not be a good looking woman, but at least I have my dignity.

Playing the bad guy is always fun because it allows the actor to chew the scenery, and Branagh comes away with a mouthful. He’s a delight as the mobile madman with a hammy Southern accent.

“Wild Wild West” cost a lot of money, yet every penny is on the screen. The film is a technical marvel, with jaw-dropping special visual effects that make it easy to be swept into the action. The film has a very theatrical look, thanks to Michael Ballhaus’ gorgeous cinematography and Bo Welch’s exquisite period production design. Elmer Bernstein’s music is reflective of previous western outings, more or a tribute than a rip-off.

Sonnenfeld, who started life as a cinematographer before taking the helm as a director (“Addams Family,” “Men in Black,”) does a splendid job of bringing all of these diverse elements together. It is obvious that he and his crew understand that the film is nothing more than a goof, a big-budget popcorn muncher, which makes it easy not to take any of this seriously.

In the end, audiences are the only real critics. They speak their mind with their money, and if the audience I saw the film with is any indication, “Wild Wild West” will ride off into the sunset with more than enough hay in the feed bag.



Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek, Ted Levine, M. Emmet Walsh, Bai Ling in a film directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Rated PG-13. 106 Minutes.


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