Wild Wild West

When reviewing a bad movie — even a movie as wall-to-wall awful as Wild Wild West — one tries to come up with something good to talk about. Something. Anything. No movie is completely bereft of good points, right? I can report that I chuckled once — once — during the 107 minutes of Wild Wild West, but the rest of the film is so terrible that I no longer remember exactly what it was that tickled me. So this is not so much a review as an inquiry into memory, as I attempt to recover the one tiny redeeming virtue, the needle in a shitstack.

Was it Will Smith who made me laugh? No, and that surprised me, because I’ve found him funny since Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and he made Independence Day and Men in Black — his previous two July 4 blockbusters — bearable. Here, playing smooth government agent James West, he seems to have entered the arrogant territory of Eddie Murphy circa 1987. Smith shows little or no comic timing here; he basically shoots or bluffs his way through every scene, an 1869 cowboy version of Axel Foley. One scene that could have been funny, when West tries to get out of being hanged by a white lynch mob, instead sits there on the screen and dies of lameness. West comes up with some weak rationale for playfully slapping a woman’s breasts, then attempts to deconstruct the word “redneck,” and you sit there wondering how any of the dozens of people involved in the film failed to point out the simple fact that this scene isn’t funny.

Okay, what about Kevin Kline? He’s usually reliable. Not here, he isn’t. As the eccentric inventor and master of disguise Artemus Gordon, Kline appears in unconvincing drag and has a slew of gizmos stuffed up his sleeve like a 19th-century Inspector Gadget. Since we never actually see Gordon inventing or building anything, we’re that much more aware that his character doesn’t exist without the help of the film’s large team of FX techies. He reminded me of the title character in Dr. Giggles, who also had a variety of outlandish gizmos with no explanation of where they came from; and when a $100-million-plus movie reminds you of Dr. Giggles, it is in serious trouble. Gordon is also allegedly smart and witty, and in a good example of the film’s level of humor, he comes up with a name for his new flying machine: “Air Gordon.” That’s the sort of almost-a-joke that is the movie’s main currency.

“Oh, come now,” you may say, “surely Kenneth Branagh provides some amusing moments and goosed a laugh or two out of you.” Nope. Sorry. Branagh turns up as evil genius Dr. Arliss Loveless (also legless), and he is to this movie what Sean Connery was to The Avengers. “I’ll do this crappy summer movie as a lark,” I imagine Branagh saying to himself, “cash the check, make a bigger name for myself in American multiplexes, and maybe even get my own action figure. Should be a good laugh.” Again: nope, sorry. Actually (ironically), it’s a testament to Branagh’s integrity that he is so bad here, because it turns out he can’t fake it; his disgust towards the material shows (and, consummate pro that he is, he tries to use it as Loveless’ disgust towards the heroes). Near the end, when his torso is attached to four mechanical spider legs, I felt I was witnessing the logical conclusion of summer wrecks like this one: take a vibrant actor and turn him into a CGI effect.

All right, so how about Barry Sonnenfeld? Isn’t he a good comedy director? Well, the evidence grows less clear with each movie. I was a wholehearted fan of his two Addams Family films, but in retrospect those movies may have owed more to the casting and the writing touch of professional madcap Paul Rudnick. Get Shorty, for me, was an enjoyable but thin movie that essentially took the Elmore Leonard book and filmed it; the later Out of Sight was ten times the film Get Shorty was. And I was never a fan of the juvenile, overstuffed Men in Black. In Wild Wild West, Sonnenfeld goes further into blockbuster incoherence — the most memorable character is the 80-foot bionic tarantula — and he doesn’t shape the scenes or assemble them in any kind of rhythm. He just puts up a scene that doesn’t work, then kills it quickly and rushes ahead to the next scene that doesn’t work. Every scene is also edited with a Cuisinart; the result feels like Silverado directed by Joel Schumacher and rewritten by morons.

Salma Hayek? She’s in it for a total of, like, 12 minutes. Sorry, guys.

At this point I am reduced to thinking about the supporting players in my attempt to uncover what it was that made me chuckle. M. Emmet Walsh as the conductor of Artemis’ gizmo-laden train, the Wanderer? Nope. Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs), unrecognizable as a scruffy villain named Bloodbath McGrath? No — but aha! He does appear in the scene that made me chuckle. I remember now. See, McGrath’s ear was blown off, and he has a horn-shaped earpiece sticking out of his head where his ear once was. He gets killed and falls, and a little white dog runs over. The pooch poses next to the earhorn, looking like the dog in the Victrola ads. Ha ha ha! Well, okay, so it’s not that much of a knee-slapper, but with a dud like Wild Wild West you take whatever you can get.

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