The 1999 big-screen reboot of Wild, Wild, West could have been a blast. We have a talented crew of actors, special effects are light years beyond what was possible in 1960s TV, and weird westerns are fairly popular. I see no reason the steampunk Western premise couldn’t have been executed to win over fans of the show and people who’d never heard of it.
Instead it sucked. It’s a failure all the way around.
In this incarnation, Will Smith is Jim West, a black Union officer hunting down the Confederate commander who destroyed West’s home town, killing his parents in the process. Kevin Kline is Artemus Gordon, a U.S. Marshall investigating the disappearance of several brilliant scientists. Their separate missions turn out to have a common link: Arliss Loveless, a Confederate die-hard who lost his legs in the Civil War. Now he plans to get revenge by destroying the United States (the film’s one good idea is that he’s going to do it not by physical annihilation but by breaking the country up and giving the pieces back to the former owners in Europe).
Like the Get Smart theatrical reboot, this suffers from trying to force the original series into a standard formula. Actually two: we have the Buddy Cop Movie (can Jim and Artie put aside their mutual differences and very different approaches to fighting evil) and the summer FX heavy blockbuster (Loveless’ big threat is a giant mecha spider). They both work against the strengths of the original series.
The thing about the TV show was that while it had plenty of comedy relief, it took its premise seriously. When Dr. Loveless plots to drive the country into homicidal mania by releasing hallucinogens into the water (Night of the Deadly Spring), or the Falcon plans to blow up Denver as a demonstration of his super-cannon (Night of the Falcon), the threat is, so to speak real, no matter how bizarre or absurd. The film, by contrast, is all about the jokes: Jim and Artie clowning around, Artie’s ridiculous steampunk gadgets — the script doesn’t take any of it seriously. Even at the climax, when Jim’s fighting Loveless’ cyborgs while trying to disable the mecha, it’s presented as funny, funny, funny.
And the spider just lacks the steampunk sense of the original. It’s a big giant robot and never manages to be interesting or intimidating, maybe because the film doesn’t take it seriously.
Then we have Kenneth Branagh’s Loveless. Branagh doesn’t appear to put any effort into Loveless; the villain is all manners and accent, no passion or guts to him. Worse, he’s a blatant Cinema of Isolation disability cliche, the bitter paraplegic who wants revenge. When he makes racist jokes at West, the officer fires back with disability jokes, which is not appropriate behavior for a film hero (if the roles were reversed, the writers would have known not to have their hero make racist jokes, no matter what the villain says).
As the film’s damsel in distress, Salma Hayek’s Rita is true to the original series in that she’s purely decorative. But that’s not a plus in 1999: I kept waiting for the film to reveal her hidden talent, scientific genius or something noteworthy. But nope.
Hollywood could learn a lot from this film, but I suspect it won’t.
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