Alias Smith and Kline

Wild Wild West derailed en route from television to megabudget movie screen

It won't take long for anyone familiar with the original Wild Wild West from television to notice that something is not right with the listless new Barry Sonnenfeld-directed film version. Yes, the film features Will Smith in the role of James West, and Kevin Kline as his cerebral sidekick Artemus Gordon. But that's about it. For starters, the filmmakers were unable--or unwilling--to use anything but a trace of Richard Markowitz's catchy opening theme from the TV show, substituting instead a far stodgier number from veteran composer Elmer Bernstein. With costs reportedly running as high as $187 million, you'd think the price for the original theme would have been in there somewhere.

The film version appears immediately inferior to the television series in other ways, too. One of the most memorable aspects of the original show was its episodic structure. The creators were obviously inspired by the Saturday serials of the 1930s and '40s that ended each week with a cliffhanger. On television, each hourlong show seemed to incorporate several serials, with each segment building to a suspenseful high point. Obviously, Sonnenfeld and his screenwriters didn't have to cut away to a commercial at prescribed intervals, but the film might have been greatly improved if they had remembered the inspiration of the serials and built more highs into their story line. As it is, this version seems remarkably flat, without much suspense along the way to its ultimate climax.

The story, as the film tells it, has West and Gordon come together as partners for the first time by the order of President Grant (also played by Kline), and it is a meeting of opposites. West has never encountered a fight he didn't want to join, whereas, on the other hand, Gordon feels that he has failed if the situation deteriorates into violence. West's weapons are a powerful right hand and fast guns, while Gordon prefers to outfox his opponents with his wits or a mind-boggling array of gadgets and disguises.

Like the series that inspired it, Wild Wild West is a modernist Western; it is not about the settling of the West, but about the clash between good and evil. In this case, evil is represented by Dr. Arliss Loveless (played by the deliciously wicked Kenneth Branagh), a mad scientist of the power-hungry variety whose ultimate goal is to see the United States of America destroyed and its wealth divided up between himself and his allies.

As the picture opens, it seems that Loveless--a Rebel soldier who lost his lower half during the war and must putt-putt around in a motorized wheelchair--has kidnaped the great scientists of the world and put them to work helping him conquer the nation. To accomplish this, the half-man, half-machine has constructed a giant galumphing militaristic spider called the Tarantula, which looks like some reject from the Star Wars films, and points it in the direction of Promontory Point, Utah, where he hopes to capture President Grant and force him to sign control of the country to him and his allies.

As usual, there are plenty of diversions along the way. Unfortunately, the filmmakers see Wild Wild West less as an update of a futuristic Western than as some early Western precursor to the James Bond films. As a result, there is far too much emphasis on the gadgetry--the Tarantula, for example, and West's specially outfitted train, called the Wanderer--and on the bevy of beauties who follow both West and the evil Dr. Loveless around. Among these is Salma Hayek, who spends most of her time onscreen looking like a refugee from a lingerie layout.

As West, Smith performs with his usual unassailable self-confidence, but there is far less for him to be confident about here than has been the case lately. He looks even more dapper than usual in Deborah L. Scott's Western duds, and he moves beautifully, especially in the action sequences. However, for most of the film, he is asked to deliver punch lines that no actor alive could make funny. He must also suffer a number of race-baiting lines from Dr. Loveless, who is meant to be a Southerner and who, at one point, welcomes West to a party he's throwing by observing that he hasn't seen him "in a coon's age."

The same plague affects Kline, who seems far less comfortable in the sidekick role here than he has in, say, A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures. He, too, is asked to make hilarious that which is wholly and completely unfunny. After Hayek's arrival, he compliments her by saying that she is "a breath of fresh ass." No, he says, when West points out his mistake, what he meant to say was that she is "a breast of fresh air." You see the level.

Branagh, too, has to deliver his share of achingly bad jokes and off-color puns, but has the added impediment of having to shout them out in the most egregiously contrived Southern accent while sporting what must be one of the worst (not to mention baroque) beards in movie history.

Given all the attendant hype and gossip about its cost, whether the movie will find an audience is anybody's guess. But of those who do find their way to the film, only those who come expecting a grand display of special effects all created to conform to the larger-than-life scale one expects to see in this particular species of summer blockbuster will walk away satisfied. Those expecting the quick wit and inventiveness of the television series will certainly be disappointed, as will those who expect the hip suavity that one usually gets from any performance by Will Smith. It's not wild wild; it's mild, mild.

 
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