Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Wild Wild West

By Marc Savlov

JULY 5, 1999: 

D: Barry Sonnenfeld; with Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek, Ted Levine, M. Emmet Walsh, Bai Ling, Frederique van der Wal, Musetta Vander. (PG-13, 152 min.)

The pillaging of classic (and in this case, not-so-classic) television series marches relentlessly onward. One wonders where Hollywood will turn once the final cathodial grave is plundered (sure to be, as I've said before, NBC's mid-Sixties travesty My Mother the Car, though personally I'm holding out for a possible John Woo-helmed adaptation of The Courtship of Eddie's Father, with Harvey Keitel presumably filling in for the late Bill Bixby), though I've noticed Saturday morning fare has as-yet-unexplored possibilities. Sonnenfeld's updating of the adventures of Civil War-era G-man Jim West (played on the small screen by Robert Conrad and here by Smith) and inventor-cum-master of disguise Artemus Gordon (Kline) has all the earmarks of a summertime smash, filled to bursting with all manner of explosions, vaguely witty repartee, and enough digital aftereffects to make it palatable to the Sega set. Still, watching the film in a packed screening the other evening, I couldn't shake the niggling feeling that something, somewhere, was missing. Ah, yes, a plot. Sonnenfeld, who occupies a soft red spot in my heart if only because of his exemplary cinematography work on a pair of early Coen Brothers films (the locally lensed Blood Simple and Raising Arizona), has in recent years been actively transforming himself into a director of the type of budgetary and effects-driven extravaganza (Men in Black) that fuels the studios' massive summer movie push. This, to me, seems a counterclockwise way of going about things, beginning a career with top-notch work like the Coens and progressing steadily downward and away from such things as storylines and narrative cohesion. Perhaps it's just me, but wouldn't it be nice to know a bit more about the characters in a film than who's the good guy and who's the bad? Things like, say, why they're good, or bad, or indifferent? In Wild Wild West, alias Smith and Kline are paragons of virtue, though not above the occasional leer at a passing (and thoroughly underutilized) Hayek, while sneering evildoer Dr. Loveless (Branagh, barely recognizable beneath gobs of makeup and a sprouting of facial hair clearly cribbed from Snidely Whiplash), digitally rendered half a man, is so one-dimensionally foul it's as if he's a product of Pixar's Angry Animation team. With a trio of buxom femme fatales by his side sporting names such as Munitia and Amazonia, Loveless is the most interesting, unintentional Freudian gag in ages. The script from S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock (Ghost Dad) is so jumbled and the direction so chaotic that it's often hard to tell what's going on where, when, and why. Comic-book villains crop up scene by scene only to inexplicably perish moments later, and by the time the whole clamorous mess is over your head hurts from sheer puzzlement. Granted, that giant spider is a jaw-dropper of an effect, but animatronic arachnids can rarely carry a picture, even in these days of pure computer graphics. Come back, Mr. Conrad.

1.5 stars

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