Friday, February 21, 2014

Wild Wild West (1999)

Wild Wild West
Want to see a ridiculous Hollywood train wreck? Then watch Wild Wild West. This movie is notorious for being a disaster and boy does it live up to its reputation. Thanks to a heavy advertising campaign and star Will Smith, the movie ended up making its budget back in its worldwide gross. Keep in mind though that production budgets usually don't factor in the marketing budget which was probably expensive. Wild Wild West is an infamous example of "WTF Hollywood" and went on to win a lot of Razzie awards. The only thing this franchise non-starter launched was the silly but catchy theme song. And the best part about that is the sample from the song "I Wish" by Stevie Wonder!

I was about 10 years old when Wild Wild West came out in 1999 and remember that it was heavily marketed to kids with a line of Burger King toys and even a junior novelization! I saw the movie for the first time a few months ago and was surprised that the film contained sexual innuendo, ass shots, an attempted lynching, and a lot of racial jokes. Of course none of that made it into the trailer! Maybe if Wild Wild West decided to be a movie for kids or go all the way and be made for adults with an R rating it would've clicked. Instead they tried too hard to please everyone and in the process nobody was happy with the result. Speaking of the marketing, Salma Hayek is all over it but disappears about halfway through the movie. From the trailer I assumed she was a main character but she's not in the movie as much as you would expect and doesn't have much to do either.

I should mention that Wild Wild West was based on the 1960s TV show of the same name. Out of curiosity I watched a couple episodes of the show on YouTube and liked it a lot. It was playing off the popularity of both James Bond and Westerns at the time for fun, anachronistic stories along the lines of steampunk. The show was pretty violent for television which was actually why it was canceled despite doing well in the ratings. The show was light years better than this movie in every aspect. The episodes I saw even dealt with race relations in the Old West in a more respectful and nuanced way. Changing the race of Jim West for the movie was probably mistake since you can either go two ways with it. The first would be to ignore the racism the character would've faced during this time period, which would then make it the elephant in the room. The second is what Wild Wild West chooses, to engage it head on, but this comes with a lot of baggage that just shouldn't be there for what is supposed to be a mainstream action movie intended for audiences of all ages. Wild Wild West makes an attempt at a serious subplot with the New Liberty town of freed slaves but it doesn't work at all. The racial jokes like "I haven't seen him in a coon's age!" are just plain uncomfortable. Although Will Smith says he turned down the title role in Django Unchained because he "wasn't the lead," I can't help but wonder if his involvement in Wild Wild West was part of the reason.

Wild Wild West
takes place in the late 1860s and is about gun slinging cowboy Jim West (Will Smith) and inventor/master of disguise Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) who are secret service agents. The pair are forced to team up in order to save President Grant from the evil ex-Confederate scientist Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh). It's clear the producers of this movie were hoping for director Barry Sonnenfeld and Will Smith to duplicate their success of Men in Black in a different franchise with Kline being the stand-in for Tommy Lee Jones. Both movies even had a Will Smith theme song and accompanying music video to go along with them. Will Smith isn't the problem with Wild Wild West, but lacks chemistry with Kevin Kline who didn't seem into the role. George Clooney was the original choice for Gordon and made the right decision by dropping out even though he probably would've been a better fit. I know that this isn't Kline's fault, but I didn't like how the movie cheated by having President Grant and Gordon impersonating Grant both played by Kline. The 60s show didn't cheat when it came to this so I don't know they had to do that in this movie.
Kenneth Branagh is hilarious as an over the top villain with a ridiculous Southern accent. His performance is enjoyable but Loveless never comes across as a serious threat as intended. I wonder if Branagh was originally considered for the role of Gordon, which would've made more sense, but somehow ended up as the villain.

Wild Wild West
feels like a long movie but not much happens. I was surprised that it was only 106 minutes since it felt over two hours long. The movie doesn't really have a middle as it's basically two halves. We have the beginning and set-up for the story, which then leads to West and Gordon being stranded in the desert by Loveless. The two must work together to escape in order to stop Loveless in the climax and that is pretty much it. It doesn't help that plot points are brought up then dropped and never followed up on such as West telling Gordon he was raised by Indians after the death of his family. I thought this would lead to a group of Native Americans helping them out or West using something he learned from then but instead its just forgotten about. These problems are probably due to the fact that this movie had six writers! The jokes are hit or miss but actually hit more than I expected. However, a lot of the humor does not come from simply being funny since lines like "East meets West!" and the "That's a man's head" scene are so cheesy and bizarre that I couldn't help but laugh. A lot of the humor simply falls flat like "Air Gordon" or when West tries to emulate Gordon's cross-dressing shenanigans.

While on the subject of strange moments in this movie, I must briefly discuss the giant mechanical spider. Jon Peters produced Wild Wild West and earlier in the 90s tried to get a Superman movie made. Peters hired Kevin Smith to write a script and one of his demands was that Superman must fight a giant spider. Peters apparently has a thing for spiders and eventually got his fix by putting it in Wild Wild West. While I get that Loveless has an obsession with spiders to overcompensate for the loss of his legs, I don't understand why there are a lot of sheep in this movie too. But these things are what make Wild Wild West a watchable bad movie, and even entertaining at times, as you never know what crazy thing will happen next!

There was an earlier attempt to bring The Wild Wild West to the silver screen in the early 90s. Mel Gibson was attached to star as Jim West with Richard Donner in line to direct and Shane Black to write the script. Donner actually directed a few episodes of the show and Mel Gibson even resembles the original actor who played Jim West, so this movie probably would've ended up a lot better than what we actually got. Donner and Gibson decided to make a movie out of a different Western TV show and did Maverick in 1994 instead. Hollywood has been all about rebooting franchises lately but I bet they wouldn't touch The Wild Wild West with a ten foot pole. I think this is a shame as the original TV series could still provide source material for a good movie and a reboot of the 60s show would make more sense then the seemingly endless remakes of 80s flicks.
Fun Facts:
The official website for Wild Wild West is still up here. Looks like it hasn't been updated since 1999!
Director Barry Sonnenfeld started his career as a cinematographer and worked on several films directed by the Cohen brothers. Acclaimed cinematographer Michael Ballhaus did the cinematography for Wild Wild West.

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