One of the most annoying things in modern Hollywood is the way studio executives pursue Formula with the zeal comparable to ancient alchemists who had pursued Philosopher's Stone. Their aim is to find a simple and universal principle that could guarantee successful blockbusters under all circumstances. They usually do it by analysing past successes and try to repeat them by re-using some of the successful films' ingredients. Actor Will Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld were identified as such ingredients in the case of 1997 science fiction comedy Men in Black. Two years later those two ingredients didn't produce winning formula in the case of Wild Wild West.
The film, based on the popular 1960s TV show, starts in 1869. James West (played by Will Smith) and Artemus Gordon (played by Kevin Kline) are two very different US Secret Service agents. The first is suave gunslinger while the latter is mild-mannered intellectual and inventor. President U.S. Grant (also played by Kline) sends them to solve the mysterious case of missing scientists. West and Gordon gradually discover that the kidnappings are the work of Arliss Loveless (played by Kenneth Branagh), legless and megalomaniac Southern gentleman and inventor of various murderous machines. Loveless wants to kidnap President Grant and sell US territory to Britain, France and Spain. West and Gordon must stop and in doing so they receive help from lovely dancer Rita Escobar (played by Salma Hayek).
Wild Wild West turned out to be one of the worst box office flops of 1999. There are many reasons for that, but the most obvious one is the casting of Will Smith as 1860s equivalent of James Bond operating in post-Civil War America. Audience simply can't accept that such character in those times could have been black. Anachronisms in such film could be entertaining, but the scriptwriting committee made major blunder by adding some references to some serious events and issues related to Civil War. Atrocious dialogues and terribly lame humour don't help either.
What helps the film, to a certain extent, is relatively good chemistry between Smith and Kline. Kline took his role more seriously than Smith and his mild-mannered Gordon serves as perfect antidote to over-the-top West. Kenneth Branagh, another great British actor stuck in the thankless role of a villain, tries very hard to show that he had fun during the shooting. Salma Hayek is also stuck in thankless role that would be best remembered for the display of certain sections of her anatomy.
Wild Wild West, just like most summer blockbusters, was incredibly expensive film and Sonnenfeld shows it during the scenes that feature giant mechanical tarantula and other futuristic machines. Those scenes with anachronistic items in Wild West setting aren't that impressive but at least they serve one useful purpose - they show that Wild Wild West shouldn't be taken seriously. And this is the only way to make the viewing experience bearable.
RATING: 3/10 (+)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on August 14th 2004)
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