Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Film Review: Wild Wild West (1999)

My friend Arron wanted me to review Wild Wild West, so I did.
The year is 1869, and Jim West (Will Smith) is a desperado, rough rider (no, you don't want nada). In his position as a desperado and a rough rider, West works as a special agent for the U.S. Army. In pursuit of General "Bloodbath" McGrath (Ted Levine), a former Confederate general who appears intent to keep fighting the Civil War, he bumps into U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), an eccentric inventor whose meticulous nature and dislike of guns don't exactly chime with the impetuous, trigger happy West. Wouldn't it just be the craziest darn thing if these chalk and cheese coppers were forced to work together? In Barry Sonnenfeld's 1999 sci-fi Western, we learn that no, no it would not.

The problem with Wild Wild West is that it is a phenomenally stupid movie that thinks it is moderately clever. That just because it injects elements of steampunk, the buddy cop genre and a suffocating level of ingratiating sarcasm into a Western setting, it is somehow interesting. In some respects, it is interesting, since there can be few films that rival it for use of non-sensical movie logic.

At one point late in the film, after Jim and Artemus have discovered that the real mastermind behind McGrath is Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a mad scientist who he lost his legs and most of vital organs fighting for the South. Loveless' master plan involves using an 80 foot tall robotic spider to force President Ulysses S. Grant (Kline) to dissolve the United States so that Loveless and a group of foreign powers can carve it up. As our heroes rush to stop Loveless, we see Grant at a ceremony to commemorate the joining of the two halves of the Trans-Continental Railroad. The ceremony is meant to end when Grant strikes a metal stake into the tracks, but every time it is placed in the hole it falls over. As it becomes apparent that the stake is being knocked out of position by vibrations, Grant turns around, the camera pulls back, and everyone at the event is shocked to see the foot of Loveless' giant spider, the cause of the vibrations, crashing into the ground.

This would be an effective bit of tension-building but for one thing. The crowd that have gathered to watch Grant are all arranged so that they are facing him. This means that they are all looking in the direction from which the spider is approaching. Furthermore, when we are shown a shot of the spider approaching, we see that it is travelling across completely flat terrain on a clear and sunny day. There is no possible way that everyone there, including the guards whose job it is to make sure no one attacks the President who, as the film has already informed us, has been receiving death threats, could have missed the giant mechanical spider lumbering across the desert towards them.

Wild Wild West is littered with moments like this, and whilst it might seem like nitpicking to point out all the stupid little things in a movie in which Will Smith and Kevin Kline are pitted against a torso played by Kenneth Branagh, the fact is that any fantasy or science fiction film has to have some sense of reality to it, otherwise nothing that happens in it has any weight or value. To use another example, West is at one point shot at point blank range with a pistol, which causes him to fall from the top of the mechanical spider to the ground below. He survives the gunshot wound because he's wearing a bulletproof vest, but the fall really should have broken his back.

This is something that could be written off as just one of those things that happens in action movies, but in the climax of the film, he has a four-way fist fight with a bunch of Loveless' goons in which falling from the spider is meant to be a dangerous thing. But why is it dangerous? It didn't kill him the first time, and then he wasn't preparing to fall; he only fell because someone shot him. Why doesn't he just jump down whenever things get too rough, dust himself off, then climb back up? Wild Wild West not only doesn't have any grounding in our reality, it has no grounding in its own reality.

All of this wouldn't be so bad if the stupidity was fun and interesting, but the film is fantastically dull. I saw Wild Wild West in the cinema back in 1999, and I'd remembered it being about three hours long. It turns out it was just the procession of airless, boring action sequences, limply strung together that made me think that.

As for the cast, they all appear to be starring in very different movies. Smith plays the Will Smith character, a smooth talking ladies man who is equally as quick with either a quip or a fist who seems to have wandered on from the set of Bad Boys. Smith's character is the most problematic since, in casting a black actor in a film that takes place in the South during Reconstruction, it forces the film to grapple with the racial aspects of the period. Whilst that would be commendable in, say, a revisionist Western, it feels horribly out of place in a silly blockbuster, and the constant jokes about slavery make the film a much queasier experience than it ever needed to be.

Kenneth Branagh, meanwhile, seems to have been cast as the villain in a James Bond movie written by Yosemite Sam. He's a grotesque caricature who is too over-the-top to be menacing, but who is too openly violent, racist and misogynistic to be funny. He embodies the film's general attitude towards women and sex, which is both juvenile and weirdly chaste. It's a film which references S&M and uses crude double-entendres like "cramming a man's private things into some hole" (actually, that may just be a single-entendre) in which there is never really any chance that either Smith or Kline will get together with ostensible love interest Salma Hayek. Just as the film is obsessed with people getting shot but hardly ever shows any blood, it is obsessed with sex but never comes remotely close to actually being sexy.

The one saving grace of the film is Kevin Kline, who delivers an often hilarious deadpan performance that nicely undercuts the absurdity of everything going on around him. Watching Wild Wild West the second time through, I was surprised by how much he managed to get out of a part that was clearly intended as nothing more than a foil for Smith, and a little saddened that Kline hasn't been in more high-profile films since. If he could briefly elevate this dreck, imagine what he could have done in a good film.

Grade: F+

(The plus is solely for Kevin Kline.)