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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 Greg King
1½ stars out of 4

Hollywood again proves that it has lost the plot with yet another misguided attempt at bringing a forgotten '60's tv series to the screen. Wild Wild West followed the exploits of a pair of secret government agents who travelled across the wild frontier by train thwarting threats against the country. This big screen version ultimately seems little more than a camp, second rate Bond-like adventure set against the background of the old west.

From the outset, with its fresh, hip hop take on the familiar theme music, it's clear that this new look Wild Wild West is far removed from the original tv series, and clearly determined to follow its own slightly modern path. A horribly miscast Will Smith (Enemy Of the People, etc) steps into the Robert Conrad role of James West, President Grant's top secret agent. Although the film is set in the years immediately following the Civil War, the thought of a black man venturing unobtrusively through the frontier and battling villainous plots is a little too incredible to swallow.

The film is set in 1869, several years after the destructive and divisive Civil War has left its scars on the fledgling nation's psyche. Long presumed dead, the embittered and crippled Dr Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) re-emerges from hiding, driven by a megalomaniacal lust for power. He has conceived a preposterous plot to dismantle the Union and return the various states to their previous owners. He has kidnapped several notable scientists, and forced them to work on his ultimate weapon of mass destruction - actually a giant mechanical spider which stomps across the frontier blasting towns into oblivion - in the hope of blackmailing President Grant into agreeing to his demands.

Enter West (Smith) and Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), two of Grant's top agents, who are forced into a reluctant partnership to thwart Loveless's diabolical scheme. West is an impulsive man of action who shoots first, while Gordon is a more thoughtful but somewhat eccentric agent, with a penchant for disguises and clever inventions that are ahead of their time. This odd couple pairing follows a predictable formula, although their relationship brings an almost contemporary sensibility to this unorthodox western.

The pair spark a number of laughs along the way, with plenty of snappy one-liners and some risque humour. The best gags though are the visual ones, in particular a series of sly in-jokes depicting some contemporary cultural icons.

The film starts off promisingly enough, but degenerates into camp farce with the arrival of the legless Loveless and his amazon army. Branagh's performance is all corn-ball humour and dreary accent and bad jokes, and he hardly establishes a menacing presence.

Smith brings an arrogant attitude to the role, but his performance lends a contemporary flavour to the character. Kline actually plays a dual role here, appearing both as Gordon and as President Grant, and he brings a nice comic edge to his performance. Although Smith and Kline develop a good rapport and work well together, they deserve better material. The vivacious Salma Hayek is wasted in thankless, exploitive role that doesn't really allow her to do much.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men In Black, etc) is a dab hand with the spectacular effects and gimmickry on display, but somehow the whole thing lacks credibility and a genuine sense of excitement. With this often silly mix of western action and high-tech gadgetry, Sonnenfeld and his team of gun writers, which includes S S Wilson and Brent Maddock (Short Circuit, etc) and Jeffrey Price and Peter S Seaman (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, etc), seem unsure of their target audience. Like the B-grade, megalomaniacal Bond villain of the piece, this lame attempt to revive the '60's television series lacks any sort of legs, and fails to last the distance. Tame tame west is more like it!

Copyright 2000 Greg King

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