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Thursday, 2 January 2020

Retro Review: Wild Wild West (1999)

Wild Wild West
Cast: Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Selma Hayek, Kenneth Branaugh, Ted Levine, M. Emmet Walsh
Genre: Steampunk Western Action
Worldwide Box Office Gross: over $222 million

Plot: The two best special agents in the Wild West must save President Grant from the clutches of the diabolical, wheelchair-bound, steampunk savvy, Confederate scientist bent on revenge for losing the civil war 

'This West Ain't The Best, But It's A Decent Sci-Fi Western Fest'

In an interview with Time Magazine in 2016, Will Smith confessed his decision to star in Wild Wild West and turning down the role of Neo in The Matrix, was driven by his hunger for fame. With that, Wild Wild West became a notorious and expensive box office flop (it cost $170 million to produce, which dwarfed The Matrix's $63 million and Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace's $115 million) & pulled in over $222 million in global box office sales. Well, in viewing the film today, it's flawed in places, but also it wasn't a total and utter mess that was unwatchable for me.

In 1869, an ex-confederate soldier by the name of Dr Loveless threatens the then-U.S president Ulysses S. Grant, insisting he'll take over the country with the aid of a weapon of mass destruction, which was built by some scientists who have been kidnapped by Loveless. The president assigns and sends out two U.S marshalls: a cowboy in Jim West and Armetus Gordon, a specialist who creates inventions & technology (he is the film's equivalent to Q from the 007 James Bond movies) who both go in search for this weapon, to destroy it & to rescue the scientists. 

Granted Kevin Kline can be a fine dramatic actor, yet seeing his turn here further reinforces my view that he can still knock it out of the park in comedy-based movies (see Soapdish, Dave, A Fish Called Wanda); that & he can be a great character actor as well with his self-serving & sufficing wit. His chemistry with Smith as Dr Armetus Gordon & Jim West's sidekick, I thought worked like a charm and as a buddy pairing, they didn't feel mismatched. Although in the straight man role, he tries to inject some drollery. Okay, it can be argued that Barry Sonnenfeld was replicating the black guy/White guy duo-thing from Men In Black, but by trading in Tommy Lee Jones for Kline, whilst they may be an unlikely proposition, it was good that they didn't make Smith's James West a wacky and over-the-top silly character. Will Smith was, less ''Big Willie'' Style Will Smith, & still, he fared well onscreen. Kenneth Branaugh overacts in his portrayal of a brash Southern villain, who looks French what with that curly twirly moustache, and hams things up,  - and it kind of works, whilst Ted Levine (Flubber, The Silence of the Lambs) briefly appears as Dr Arliss Loveless's right-hand man. It's a pity the script didn't supplement their acting efforts; still, they give it their all and they get 'A' for effort. The weak spots in terms of characters must go out to the female actresses, Salma Hayek and Garcelle Beauvais, whose roles as the one-note eye-candy types, were pointless.

Contrary to the critics, this is a quirky take on the Western genre and as hybrid movies go, this is one of the most creatively ambitious I've seen. & it's dumb, silly, quirky, barmy, & Will Smith in drag posing as a bellydancer, check (and you thought Will Smith as the Genie in the live-action Aladdin was his only weird moment). Kevin Kline also in drag, check, weaponised metal breasts, erm, check.

Over the years, the original Men in Black seems to have aged well, regardless of how many times it gets shown on TV, whilst due to the critical lashing Wild Wild West received and some of the problems the film poses, Barry Sonnenfeld's not quite successor to 1997's megahit, made it on various worst films of the 1990s and latter 1990s lists.

If only the story had a lot more weight and managed to hold itself up to the very end: for all the special effects and how snazzy it looks visually with its wacky gadgets, nifty-looking weapons and fights on a moving train, the story remains static as it is slim. There needed to be more energy, more creativity, one or two extra plot twists would have made a difference and there were occasions where it felt like I was waiting for something huge and out of the ordinary to happen. As for the comedy and humour, it was sketchy and it should have been consistent, but when it tried to inject some witty repartee and wisecracks thanks to Kline, especially, that wasn't too bad.

Wild Wild West still has certain reasonable entertainment value going for it (I quite liked the steampunk theme) and whilst the plot and story could have been far more effective and stronger & the film is all over the place, Will Smith and Kevin Kline's onscreen charm and appeal gave the film a bit of a boost. Smith's performance might have been lambasted by many but arguably he has appeared in worst fare than this **cough Shark Tale, After Earth anyone?**. I will get round to seeing Suicide Squad, which received a thrashing by critics when it was released back in 2016.

Final Verdict:

A mindless, light-hearted Western romp which is almost in the similar vein and operates in a similar universe to Shanghai Noon and Knights with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, it's not as outright horrible as the critics have made it out to be. And sure it could have been a better movie (it's not a very good one) and sure it's not a comedy classic, but this still isn't bad in my eyes either. Wild Wild West is part- Shanghai Noon, part- Around The World In 80 Days with the added futuristic feel of Men In Black, but not enough of its sharpness, consistency in quality narrative-wise and plus, it needed more vigour.

Now I wouldn't mind paying money to see a crossover with Shanghai Noon and these actors, Jackie and Owen alongside Will Smith and Kevin Kline and with a quirkier and consistently funnier and wittier screenplay.


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