Wild Wild West (12)
THERE is a brief moment, the four minutes which comprise the opening titles of Wild Wild West, when audiences may be lulled by the idea that this could be a genuine classic.
Why? Simply this. The titles which open this empty sci-fi cowboy flick hark back to those from Sam Peckinpah’s glorious 1969 western The Wild Bunch.
But there the resemblance ends. Wild Wild West aspires to emulate the hip, happening coolness of Men in Black by reuniting MiB‘s star Will Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld.
It doesn’t. Period. And it sucks.
What worked in MiB fails miserably here. Allied to the fact that the plotting is non-existent is the pairing of Smith and Kevin Kline – a poor substitute for Tommy Lee Jones – and the casting of Kenneth Branagh, surely in the running for worst actor in the universe, as the villain of the piece.
Mexican sexpot Salma Hayek, and Chinese chick Bai Ling, are both superfluous.
The story, such as it is, pits 1860s US government agent Jim West (Smith in shades, stetson and cowboy boots) against Dr Arliss Loveless (Branagh in black-hatted mad scientist mode) who, having kidnapped half the United States’s top boffins, is plotting to build an infernal device to kill the president.
President Grant (Kline in heavy disguise) orders his two best men, West and madcap inventor Artemus Gordon (Kline again), to join forces to defeat Loveless, his army of Amazonian female heavies and ‘Bloodbath’ McGrath, a confederate officer with a miniature gramophone trumpet where his ear should be.
And that’s it.
Where the film scores is in its hugely original production design – a stunning
look which combines Jules Verne and Victoriana with HG Wells and sets the whole thing in a Wild West which harks back to the classic westerns of John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sam Peckinpah.
The legless Loveless zips around the place in a steam-driven wheelchair – a Bond-esque villain in the tradition of both Captain Nemo and Robur the Conqueror. Yet while his contraption exhibits everything that works about Wild Wild West, it also exemplifies all that is wrong.
The movie relies heavily on silly gadgetry at the expense of characterisation, which is anorexic to non-existent. Smith appears to be running headlong into the Bruce Willis Syndrome, in that he has discovered a screen persona and is determined to pursue it at every turn.
Kline, meanwhile, attempts to steer a clear path through the confusion of special effects and stilted script (which includes a puzzling and unnecessary moment where Smith appeases a redneck lynch mob) by playing Gordon as straight as he possibly can.
Branagh, frankly, is awful. He is incapable of demonstrating an American accent (as proved by Dead Again, The Gingerbread Man and Celebrity) and here his Southern drawl fades in and out as surely as his acting is over-the-top and as thick as a side of ham.
Given that two American auteurs – Woody Allen and Robert Altman – have used Branagh, maybe they can see something others cannot. Me, I would implore filmmakers never to give him another job.
For all its faults, there is a great deal of humour in Wild Wild West, but too many of the jokes and ‘witty’ lines fall horribly flat. Sonnenfeld appears to have let his ship drift, seemingly content to let spectacle do his job for him. Bad move, Barry.
Given the bottomless pit of truly great classic sci-fi stories which abound – from Verne’s novellas to Wells’s The War of the Worlds – why must modern filmmakers bastardise the best to pump millions into dross like this?