A couple of months ago in the studio I was having a discussion about my work. I was working on the refrigerated wagons at this point, the film Wild Wild West (1999) purely from a visual perspective thankfully. I knew the film had a bad reputation, even with Will Smith in the lead It had at least something going for it. So I decided to seek it out and at least watch for some inspiration, see what has gone before and see what happens. Well for the moment I feel like Hans Moleman who was accidentally locked in the Kwiki-Mart whilst Apu went off for 5 minutes of partying. Returning to ask for the 4 minutes back (one minute to spare), well I wasted a good part of my morning to this awful film. I would have rather been at the party instead.
Sadly I can only protest and wish all I want, or I could carry on writing and see if I can get something more positive with the rest of my day. A review that tries to understand the stilted mess of a Western/buddy/Science fiction fusion of a clusterf***. This venting feels pretty good but it’s nothing If I can’t put my frustration into something more coherent than a protest of foul language. So where to begin. The fact that this is Will Smith long before he made a string of stinker’s in the last decade this could easily be written off as a blip after Enemy of the State (1998) before going onto pick up an Oscar nomination for Ali (2001) and another Men in Black film the following year. He’s riding high off the success of his Fresh Prince of Bell Air role that catapulted him through this period. If anything he’s the one whose let down by the material he has to work with. A script that tries to hard to be funny and visuals that try even harder. Yes I get it this is a world where technology is new and very much inspired by HG Wells. From the primitive hearing aid (ear horn) sunk into the head of not so scary General McGrath (Ted Levine ) to the using a head to project the last image they capture d on their retina before being beheaded by a flying disc. It’s supposed to be creative and fun but really blurs into the distasteful all to often.
Smith is badly opposite Kevin Kline, who yes can be funny with the right material too, that doesn’t help him. I think the film makers were going for a progressive depiction of white and black pairing in a Western setting. Despite this they have no real chemistry, natural comedic timing together, they just don’t sit well together. Unless they are going for the odd couple with US Marshals, it still doesn’t work for me. We have the gun-toting traditionalist in Smith’s James West whilst Kline’s Artemus Gordon relies on technology to get the job done, preferring his tool kit to his gun. Another observation that has become more prevalent is the fact the gun is now seen as almost out-moded and used by a black man, whilst the white progressive is relying other technology and methods to get the job done. The White settlers are still seen as superior even after they have freed the black slaves.
Visually there is far too much going on here, what’s supposed to be for gags just fills the screen too much , with too much effort going into making the contraptions work either in camera or post production. Not once did I laugh out loud at any of these gags. Instead they fell flat on their face, one after the other. Spending too much time in the detail of each piece, the fast paced editing doesn’t give you time to enjoy them. I think someone had too big a budget to spend and just thought you know what, lets do it all and cram it in there, they’ll love it. Another final distasteful nail in the coffin is Kenneth Branagh‘s Dr. Arliss Loveless a disabled disgruntled Southerner who wants to reverse progress, tearing up the old boundaries and go back to 1776, when the West was still to be won and land still to be purchased. That much I can buy into, where it goes badly wrong is the fact they he’s wheelchair bound and using that clearly to his evil advantage, painting the image of all disabled war veterans are bent on destruction and evil ends. His character gets worse even to the point that he has spider legs built into the base of his chair. The only way that Branagh was able to play this part was to ham it up to the max, having more fun than you’d expect.
The lose plot of the film does have some foundation – loosely I add. The Southern states after the civil war were uneasy and naturally very unhappy after the surrender. The actions of Loveless are overly exaggerated to say the least. The only figment of historical fact is President Grant also played by Kline who eventually nails in the golden pin that links up the transcontinental railroad, which I must admit is almost funny as he attempts three times to hammer it into place. Otherwise it’s all complete nonsense that tries too hard to entertain, falling over backwards to make us laugh but throughout I was bored stiff. I feel for Smith who was trying desperately to make the script work. The contraptions, be they on the train, the giant spider etc do reflect the era but could’ve have worked if everything wasn’t a joke. If it was a sci-fi thriller not this comedic mess. There have been a number of westerns that attempted to blur genres, some more successful than others. Cowboys & Aliens (2011) was just pure fun, whilst The Lone Ranger (2013) was a bloated and bordering on offensive, whilst the more recent folly and to me offensive to the countries history – A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) that just went too far too often to be funny for more than a few minutes.
So what can I take from this film? Not very much really. Avoid it at all costs and try to settle with Smith’s single being the only saving grace. Apart from that I’m scratching my head for something positive. The larger contraptions maybe help inform the finished aesthetic of my own work, I could be doing some visual research in the future… who knows.