The Wild Wild West is the big budget movie version of the 1960's television series of the same name. It takes place in America, circa 1869, and involves two lawmen in a desparate race against time to stop an evil genius and avert a possible assassination attempt on President Grant. (Wow! Sounds like a great movie!)
In it, Will Smith plays, well, Will Smith. He calls himself James West, but he isn't fooling anyone. Mind you, playing Will Smith is something Will Smith does quite well. It's a part he's worked very hard to perfect in films like Independence Day, Men In Black, and almost everything else he's ever done. The part of "Will Smith" has brought Will Smith much success over the years, and I can't fault him for that. However, a small amount of genuine acting once in a while would be interesting to see. It's been a long time since Six Degrees of Separation, a film in which Will Smith shows that he is capable of doing more than wisecracking between special effect sequences. Unfortunately, the script for The Wild Wild West seems content with this tried and true formula, and, after a promising first half-hour, completely succumbs to it, sacrificing any meaningful plot or dialogue that doesn't lead directly to a chase, fight, or explosion.
Will Smith is joined by Kevin Kline, who plays Artimus Gordon, a lawman who is both a master of disguise, and has a flair for all sorts of 19th century gadgetry. In a better thought out script, the pairing of these two popular and charismatic stars could have resulted in some classic scenes. However, The Wild Wild West wastes the possibilities of such a pairing, reducing the relationship between Smith and Kline to the tired "Buddy Cop" formula, that of two bickering lawmen who are forced to work on the same assignment, even though they hate each other. Along for the ride is Salma Hayak, who plays the generic "Girl in Trouble" that all films of this stature need to give its male stars a reason to act "Macho" toward. The result; another capable actor is completely wasted.
In stark contrast, Kenneth Brannagh triumphs as the evil Dr. Loveless. He creates one of the most memorable movie villians I've seen since Jack Nicholson's "Joker" from the first Batman film. The character of Dr. Loveless also incorporates the most successful and original special effect in the film. Dr. Loveless has lost both his legs during the war between the states, and now zips around atop a steam powered wheelchair-like device. The effect is impressive, and creating the illusion could not have been a very comfortable position for Brannagh to be in. Brannagh makes the most of his situation, playing Dr. Loveless for all he's worth, and seems to be the only person in the film actively attempting to rise above the material he's been given to work with. He almost succeeds, but is thwarted by the real star of the film; Loveless' chosen weapon of mass destruction - a giant, fireball spitting mechanical spider. This is the kind of idea that could only have resulted from many high level studio executive meetings. It's that lame.
Lastly, most of the special effects in the film appear to have been rushed or unfinished. There were entire scenes where the use of blue (or green) screen, a process whereby the actors are filmed in front of a blue screen, with the surrounding effects and scenery added later, is very apparent. This lack of attention is disturbing, considering that the effects were produced by the usually meticulous wizards at Lucasfilm's Industrial Light and Magic. It's almost as though they were only working on The Wild Wild West during coffee breaks from Star Wars: Episode I, which may not be too far from the truth.
Tack on a cheesy ending and, sadly, you've got yourself a sure-fire Hollywood box-office hit.
Directed By: Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring: Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Brannagh, Salma Hayak
Rated: PG-13 (Violence / Sexually Suggestive Humor)
Running Time: 107 Min.