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Wild Wild West

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Wild Wild West

Starring: Will Smith, Kevin Kline
Director: Barry Sonenfeld
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 107 Minutes
Release Date: June 1999
Genres: Action, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Western, Comedy

*Also starring: Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek, Robert Conrad, Musetta Vander, Ted Levine

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

James Bond and Leonardo da Vinci meet Godzilla and Dr. Strangelove--sort of--in this moderately amusing summer action comedy which, for all its faltering one-liners displays quite a bit of pizazz. The James in the film, however, is a character known as James T. West (Will Smith), the Godzilla- like creature is actually the biggest darn arachnid you've ever seen. The Bond is in fact the link between West and Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), two opposites who learn that in order to survive the evil scheme of the legless villain, Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), they must learn to meld their distinct talents into an awesome fighting team.

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld--whose "Men in Black" hitched the talented Will Smith to Tommy Lee Jones in a hip spin on the sci-fi invasion genre--"Wild Wild West" arrays some of the originality and sharp pacing of the 1997 saga. But whereas Ed Solomon's perky screenplay for "Men in Black" exquisitely adapted Lowell Cunningham's Malibu comic for the screen, the dialogue here takes a back seat to the dynamic computer-generated visuals, leaving Smith, Kline, and Salma Hayak to wow the summer crowds with perpetual motion in lieu of a great deal of clever repartee.

After an unpromising start featuring the slimy and scheming General Bloodbath McGrath (Ted Levine), a hideous creature with a prosthetic ear who makes the rounds of a post-bellum bar-cum-whorehouse in West Virginia--Sonnenfeld takes us to the White House in Washington, where special agents James T. West and Artemus Gordon are given assignments by President Ulysses S. Grant. Gordon is a cerebral fellow who uses his analytical mind to fashion useful inventions. He has invented a bulletproof vest, an array of Bond-like gadgets on his opulent train known as The Wanderer, and is soon to experiment with the design of a heavier-than-air flying machine. His partner, West, is strictly the physical type: the sort who would shoot first, shoot second, and then shoot again before starting to ask questions. Though at first they can barely tolerate each other, they learn to combine their abilities to thwart the wicked Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a Strangelovian villain determined to avenge himself against the victorious North against whom he lost both of his legs in battle. (Sonnefeld's use of a bevy of Brunhildes serves to furnish Loveless with a Nazi tenor.) Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek) provides the sexual tension such as there is, teaming up with West and Gordon to find her father, who has been kidnapped by Loveless in a plot to force President Grant to sign a surrender which would reverse the outcome of the Civil War.

Most of the fun of this pure summer entertainment should have been in the one-liners thrown out by Smith and Kline as they snipe at each other while tracking down the smart, articulate scoundrel. But a good deal of Will Smith's shtick runs the gamut from the obvious to the embarrassing, the latter most prominent in his sick-joke treatment of the wheelchair-bound Loveless. "We have a nice half-jail cell picked out for you," he sneers when he appears to have caught up with Loveless; and "You know women--they'll cut the legs right out from under you." When he is about to be lynched by a group of southern whites who object to the man's calling them rednecks, West tries to talk his way out of the rope by explaining that "redneck" is not a bad word at all: "Red means passion," he explains, "And neck...well I can't think of anything for neck," he grouses. To appease the band of vindictive Confederates, he continues, "About the slavery issue--I don't see what's the big deal...I don't blame you for not wanting to get your own fat asses out of bed and pick your own cotton." The bon mots are pretty much on that level.

The film's appeal comes mostly from the crafty gadgets invented by Gordon to foil the enemy, but principally from the luxurious train the man rides and from the 80-foot mechanical spider constructed by Dr. Loveless to compensate him metaphorically for his lost limbs. West and Gordon must continually devise schemes to avoid the clutches of the steel tarantula, with Gordon's keen mind outpacing West's more physical nature. When Gordon observes a wasp descending with extreme prejudice on a black spider in the Utah desert (actually filmed on a New Mexico ranch), he conceives a blueprint to foil his nemesis.

Salma Hayek has virtually nothing to do, performing in one instance as the literal butt of one visual joke aboard the train, while Kevin Kline and Will Smith do not come close to matching the chemistry of Smith's team-up with Tommy Lee Jones two years back. Kenneth Branagh, disguised almost beyond recognition, successfully emulates the New Orleans accent he practiced since his role in Robert Altman's "The Gingerbread Man," essentially stealing the show while Elmer Bernstein's soundtrack pumps away furiously throughout to compensate for the middling dialogue.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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