Some very talented people stub their collective toes quite elaborately and expensively in “Wild Wild West.” Madly energetic in the service of a script that’s just not there, Barry Sonnenfeld’s attempt to mine summer gold out of another teaming with Will Smith two years after “Men in Black” misses the bull’s eye as entertainment and will do the same commercially. Warner Bros. should expect reasonably big opening figures based on the appeal of its star, who hasn’t had a B.O. misfire yet, but a rapid decline will follow once the odor gets out. Given the budget, which may not quite rank with that of “Titanic” but is up there in the $160 million-$180 million range with “Waterworld,” pic will certainly produce Men in Red.
As refittings of old TV shows go, this was neither the best nor the worst from a conceptual p.o.v., turning the 1964-68 Robert Conrad-Ross Martin series into a Jules Verne-like 19th century quasi-sci-fier equipped with hip refs and contempo attitude. In the event, however, the major film it most resembles is Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” another fanciful adventure in which the bluster and gargantuan production values suffocated the whimsical stance, arbitrary plotting and intermittent visual invention.
The notions here are to make a futuristic romp from the perspective of the film’s setting in 1869, and to pit a black hero against a Southern white villain driven by revenge for the personal and political losses he suffered during the Civil War. Both are plausible starting points, but the larky, lightly irreverent tone established by Sonnenfeld and his platoon of screenwriters is neither serious enough for any true emotions to take hold, nor nearly outrageous enough for wild, surprising comedy to result.
What comes to the fore in this vacuum, then, is what Hollywood feels most comfortable with these days — thunderous, cartoonish action (that required the services of no fewer than 114 stunt players) and special effects that enable the digital effects wizards to show off some new moves. There’s always something happening onscreen to keep the undemanding viewer stimulated in a very elementary sort of way, but nothing that captures the imagination.
In introductory sequences that emphasize nothing but sex humor and miss the mark in a way that accurately presages all what’s to come, special government agents James West (Smith) and Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) are defined, respectively, as a quick-on-the-draw man of action and an endlessly resourceful inventor with a special gift for disguise.
With the action spinning from Louisiana to West Virginia and Washington, D.C. (pic’s wittiest shot has West approaching a White House with grazing sheep adorning the front lawn), the temperamentally opposed lawmen are thrown together by President U.S. Grant (Kline again, in one of his many getups) to thwart Confederate General “Bloodbath” McGrath (Ted Levine), who is allegedly developing a highly advanced “weapons system” that threatens the Union.
When West and Gordon sneak into a masquerade ball in New Orleans, however, it becomes evident that their real foe is the insidious Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a military genius long thought dead who here re-emerges as “half a man,” a paraplegic mounted on a motorized cart and intent upon striking back at a world that has ravaged his country and his body.
With McGrath’s help, he has amassed an enormous store of weapons and, in order to design his futuristic instruments of destruction, has kidnapped all the top scientists in the country, one of whom is supposedly the father of Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek), a beauteous saloon “entertainer” who tags along for the ride and keeps West and Gordon at odds over the prospect of her potential amorous favors.
A significant degree of the production team’s imagination has gone into inventing the gadgets and gizmos that outfit the special train car in which the threesome travels west. These include James Bond-like ejector seats and a pool table that turns upside down to position an unsuspecting victim inches above the tracks underneath the train. All of these stunts require a fast quip, usually from West, and when the next Bond film comes out and people complain about how lame the little ripostes are, as they always do, they will just have to think back to “Wild Wild West” to feel grateful for small favors.
After a battle with Loveless’ tank train and some scampering through corn fields as West and Gordon are pursued by spinning discs that look like razor-edged Frisbees, the agents’ quest ends in Spider Canyon (actually Monument Valley), where they discover that Loveless’ exploits in “mechanology” have given birth to the Tarantula, a hulking, heavily armed 80-foot iron spider that can plod across the countryside, laying waste to everything in its path. Loveless’ aim is to kidnap the president and force the repartitioning of the United States into European-controlled colonies, with much of the West reserved for him. Of course, it’s up to the men of brawn and brain to stop him.
The breezy, quick-witted style that has made most of Sonnenfeld’s films to date entertaining and successful isn’t enough to overcome the production’s cumbersome mechanics or the unfocused and unpolished nature of the story and script. There are plenty of momentary distractions along the way — the almost “Addams Family”-ish ghoulishness of the dress ball, the way figures from historical paintings come to life and climb off the canvas to interject themselves into a scene, the view of a more technological future as imagined from the vantage point of Reconstruction, the tremendous detail of Bo Welch’s production design and Deborah L. Scott’s costumes — but they remain merely that, distractions from the lack of fun and substance elsewhere.
Smith seems to love posing and strutting around in his elegant cowboy duds, but he’s hardly at his most inspired or amusing here. The incongruity of a black man in West’s position of authority in the 1860s is brushed aside with gags, and some of his bits, including some mocking servile-style jive and a noose-point speech he delivers to an upper-class Southern lynch mob, don’t deliver the intended laughs and will make auds somewhat queasy. Kline has fun with his multitude of disguises and hits the right note of scrupulous eccentricity, but also fights an uphill battle with undernourished dialogue.
Done up in black hair and jagged beard and backed by an all-but-silent bevy of supermodel cohorts, Branagh supplies all the vinegar he can to his Prussian-style villain, while Hayek is all sauciness and pulchritude as the ever-elusive Rita.
As impressive as the industrial-style special effects may be, they’re both too much and not enough for this mild mild West.