just like last time, when we examined Roy Orbison's
Fastest Guitar Alive, I want you close your eyes and envision
a movie: this time, a version of the TV series The Wild Wild
West utilizing state of the art special effects and makeup,
made by the same team who brought us the vastly entertaining Men
what? You did it again. You came up with a better movie than they
Wild West got a ton of bad press, generally accepted as the
Worst Movie of That Summer (until Blair Witch Project came
along, but the merits of that movie is a debate that still rages).
My personal take? I kinda like it. But then I'm also the guy who
has warm thoughts for movies like Robocop 2, Star Trek 5,
and Shocker. Wild Wild West can be fun if you let
it - but it is also terribly, terribly flawed. And being who we
are, let us focus on those flaws and tear them apart with great
there is the casting of Will Smith as James West. Let me hasten
to say, I don't consider that a mistake; past the box office draw,
it's an interesting choice, and opens a host of dramatic possibilities
for the character - only a few of which are ever properly exploited,
unfortunately. Robert Conrad, the original West, was an athletic
powerhouse, and if his fight scenes seemed a bit unrealistic and
stylized, well, that was TV action of the 60s - West was one of
the more brutal fighters, with just a hint of martial arts in his
style. The more slightly built Smith moves well in his fight scenes,
a necessity since the martial arts aspects have been increased to
clarify why this Jim West is capable of taking on several
men at a time, unarmed.
the picture opens, the team of West and Gordon we grew up with has
not yet come together. A Civil War hero, West is still affiliated
with the Army, and is tracking down Confederate war criminal "Bloodbath"
McGrath (Ted Levine), believed to be responsible for the massacre
of a colony of freed slaves (later we will discover that West's
family was among the victims). While tracking McGrath, West runs
across U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), who is also tracking
McGrath. Gordon feels (correctly) that McGrath and his men are responsible
for the kidnapping of several scientists.
this is Artemus Gordon, he is in disguise when he finally encounters
this is (God help us) a comic retelling of an already fairly
campy show, Gordon is in drag as a saloon girl at Fat-Can
Candy's Gentleman's Club. The original Gordon was, of course, Ross
Martin, who wound up in a lot of bizarre, bad get-ups, but Martin
as an actor had a tough row to hoe there; he could never really
try to fool us, as the audience always had to know that was
Artie inside the costumes. I'm probably wrong here, but I don't
recall Martin ever dressing in drag, except perhaps as a little
old lady. Here, however, we must be subjected to Kline dolled up
as a flashy and, um, robust whore who inveigles McGrath upstairs
so the General may be hypnotized with one of Gordon's inventions,
hypnotic disks concealed in a belt.
are told exactly how we are to consider Gordon's inventions in the
future when the disks jam and Gordon has to be saved from an un-hypnotized
McGrath by the explosive entrance of West. A mandatory barroom brawl
follows, all observed from a nearby hill by the villain of the piece,
Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh).
Loveless character of this version is a departure from its predecessor.
Dr. Miguelito Loveless, one of the better continuing
villains in the realm of fiction, was your typical megalomaniacal
mad scientist who also happened to be a dwarf. Played by the underappreciated
Michael Dunn, any episode of Wild Wild West featuring Loveless was
a treat. Continuing the character as a little person*
would have been fairly problematic; the only actor of similar (name)
stature we have these days is Warwick Davis; no slight meant to
Mr. Davis, but I've not yet seen him turn in a performance to match
any of Dunn's. David Rappaport, who played Randall, Chief of the
Time Bandits, would have been a superlative Miguelito; sadly,
he took his own life in 1990. Thus the character is re-imagined
here as a Confederate gentleman scientist who lost the lower half
of his body in the Late Unpleasantness With The North and now tools
around in a variety of steam-driven conveyances.
After Loveless blows up Fat-Can Candy's
with a wagonload of nitro, West and Gordon are called
to a meeting with then-President Ulysses S. Grant. Industrial
Light and Magic is put to good use here: the Capitol
Dome, under construction, is seen in the distance, and
Smith ties his horse immediately outside the White House.
Sheep graze on the lawn.
West is greeted by Gordon disguised
as Grant. Kline plays both Gordon and Grant.
I'm a sucker. I didn't realize it was the same actor
in both roles. Good on you, Kevin
- Grant assigns the two men (who, by movie law, despise
each other and their methods) to work together on the McGrath/
Missing Scientists case. He assigns them "The Wanderer",
his personal train. The Train, in the original, had all
sorts of boss spy stuff like a laboratory and a billiard
table with trick balls. The movie Wanderer, however, is
full of goofy cartoon spy stuff like a big mallet that swings
from the ceiling, activated by a huge button clearly marked
"Do Not Push ".
A pre-credits sequence showed us one
of the missing scientists running through the woods
and wearing a huge, bizarre metal collar. He was pursued
by a flying buzzsaw blade, which eventually decapitates
him. Gordon has possession of the head, and rigging
a grisly magic lantern of the thing, he uses the then-current
belief that a corpse's eyes retain the image of the
last thing they see projects this image on the wall
- in this case, McGrath pulling the blade out of the
magnetic collar. Placing the dead scientist's glasses
on his nose brings a piece of paper in McGrath's pocket
into focus: an invitation to a costume party at Loveless'
mansion in New Orleans.
Up to this point, there hasn't been
a whole lot of substance on display, but I'm generally
entertained. Nothing's happened to piss me off yet.
Oh, wait. It's a costume party,
so Gordon wants to go in drag! Ha ha! This leads
to a conversation overheard by the Wanderer's engineer,
Coleman (M. Emmett Walsh), only the first of many, which
causes him to believe the two men are gay. Oh, heavens,
film, stop! Stop please! I shall surely expire from
such wanton, high-minded hilarity!
Okay, at least that bit is over with
quickly. The men go separately to the party, West punching
out a guard and climbing a balcony because "Jim
West don't wear no costumes" (fair enough). There
he encounters one of Loveless's female minions, Miss
East (Ling Bai).
Miguelito always had a statuesque woman with him; but because this
is movies!, everything must perforce be bigger. Ergo, Loveless
has no less than four female assistants: Munitia (Musetta
Vander), who appears to be a weapons expert; Miss Lippenreider (Sofia
Eng) who - guess what? - reads lips; Amazonia (Frederique Van Der
Wal), who is, uh, really tall.... and the aforementioned Miss East,
who is apparently just there to seduce Jim West.
Most people zeroed in on the first exchange between Jim West
and Dr. Loveless at this party - at which Loveless has made
the dramatic announcement that he is not quite dead yet:
West. How nice of you to join us tonight and add color
to these monochromatic proceedings.
when a fella comes back from the dead, I find that an occasion
to stand up and be counted.
East informs me that you're expectin' to see General McGrath
here. Well, I knew him years ago, but I haven't seen him in
a coon's age.
I can see where it would be difficult for for a man of your
stature to keep in touch with even half
the people you know.
the lovely Miss East will keep you from being a slave
to your disappointment.
you know beautiful women. They encourage you one minute, then
cut the legs out from under you the next.
Excuse me, Mr. West.
combination of racist and cripple jokes provokes a lot of people,
and is pointed out as emblematic of what's wrong with the movie.
I feel there are other, better examples of the picture's shortcomings.
This politically incorrect word-jabbing becomes a continuing motif
between the two, and is actually a pretty good device to demonstrate
how essentially childish are the two characters.
As I mentioned earlier, Miss East is there to seduce
West into a lavish study, where we discover a life-size
portrait on the wall is actually a man standing very
still. Okay. They saw Indiana Jones and the Temple
of Doom. Gets the same reaction from me now as
it did then: I think it's cool for five seconds, then
consider it's only possible because film is a two-dimensional
distortion of three dimensional objects. Sometimes
it's hell being an intellectual.
Now the film loses me as West mistakes a very
- ahem, robust - woman for Gordon in disguise,
and says and does all the wrong things to her. The
real Gordon, disguised as a fur trapper, throws a
rope into the center of the room and yells, "Hang
heem!" Ah yes. Lynch mob. Hilarious. The lynching
will also come to an inexplicable halt while Will
Smith engages in a patented Will Smith stand-up routine,
as he tries to talk the mysteriously inert mob out
of lynching him. I'm fairly sure that the screenplay
- much like the later scripts for Mork and Mindy
- at this point lapses into three pages blank
but for the words, "Will does his thing".
Like I said, I'm gone, and the picture is going to
have to work very hard to get me back.
Will is entertaining the mob, Gordon, searching for clues, discovers
Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek) in a gilded cage. He recognizes her from
Fat-Can Candy's, and she tells him she is looking for her father
- one of the missing scientists - and has gone undercover herself,
to find him. We'll be talking about Ms. Hayek and her (non) role
in this mess later.
Gordon used his Elastic Rope, West was (supposedly) never in danger,
and Rita knows where McGrath will rendezvous with his private army.
This ragtag group of inveterate proto-militia men are in a clearing,
waiting for the weaponry Loveless has promised them in return for
their aid in kidnapping the scientists. A submersible armored vehicle
exits the nearby river and lumbers into the center of McGrath's
camp; the men's cheers quickly turn into screams when the vehicle
engages them in a withering 360-degree field of fire. Loveless,
it seems, has double-crossed McGrath and is using the occasion to
demonstrate his invention to his European backers. The dying McGrath
tells West that Loveless was actually responsible for the earlier
Rita stows away on the Wanderer as West
and Gordon attempt to follow Loveless' trail westward.
Wild Wild West was always known for having at
least one beautiful woman on hand for West and Gordon
to make goo-goo eyes at; this is primarily Hayek's function
here, besides panicking during Loveless' Super Tank
attack on the Wanderer, setting off one of the trick
billiard balls and putting everyone to sleep, so they
can be captured and we can get to -
The Mandatory Death Trap sequence.
Jim and Artie, locked in those magnetic collars,
race through a wheat field , spinning blades in
pursuit. The chase is fairly well shot, if lacking
in tension; the following weak slapstick as the
heroes try to get out of the collars is at least
in focus, if lacking in humor.
West tells Gordon about his
personal stake in the Freedmanstown massacre;
Artie vows to help him bring Loveless to justice.
There. All these two's animosities, all the
bad things they've done and said to each other
is now behind them, and they are fast friends
and have each other's respect. There is a technical
term for a scene like this, and that term is
and Gordon manage to find Loveless' desert stronghold, and the reason
why he kidnapped all those scientists: the captives have been building
Loveless a hundred foot tall mechanical spider for the villain
to drive about the countryside blasting the bejeesus out of stuff.
Now, The Wild Wild West had an impossibly advanced device
at the core of many of its episodes, so the spider is actually on-topic,
as it were, unlike much of the rest of the script.
think I can practically guarantee that the spider was one of the
concepts that sold this project; there are few things that make
my Merchandising Sense tingle like the idea of a Giant Mechanical
Spider toy that shoots dangerous little plastic missiles. Unfortunately
whoever was handling the license did not share my enthusiasm, and
the only version that was ever made was a not-terribly boss Burger
King Kid's Meal prize. If a larger, more complex version had been
made, it would still be sitting on top of my computer monitor. As
it is, there are only two minor little demon things from a Macfarlane
figure that look like they're high-fiving, and Simon Bar Sinister.
yeah. Bizarre devices in Wild Wild West. Those hit their
height of absurdity when some bad guy engineered a flying saucer
landing near a mining town. Or it could be worse: in one of the
made for TV movie sequels, the somewhat diminutive Paul Williams
played the son of Miguelito Loveless, and we were asked to accept
that this evil genius has, circa 1870 or so, invented the atomic
bomb and two cybernetic accomplices, his "Six Hundred Dollar
People" (Get it? Get it?) These primitive cyborgs were
played by Shields and Yarnell, doing "The Robot". If you
do not remember Shields and Yarnell, they were a husband-and-wife
mime team who, for a while, had their own show on CBS. A variety
show. Hosted by mimes. The 70s were a strange, hellish time.
where was I?
one of the movie's most impressive FX shots, Loveless uses his spider
to break up the Golden Spike ceremony at the joining of the two
halves of the Transcontinental Railroad and confront President Grant.
Artemus appears in his Grant disguise
and attempts to pass off the real President as a decoy.
Grant does not play along - proving that common sense
has never been an essential quality for Chief Executive
- and both men are captured. Even granting Gordon's
ability to put on this complicated Rick Baker makeup
quickly - given the stride of a hundred foot tall mechanical
spider, and the fact that West and Gordon get a late
start, even on horseback, how are they there at all?
- Loveless returns to his stronghold to have a big supervillain
meeting of all his prisoners, guards, and European backers
to reveal his plan to take over America and cede the land
back to its "original" European holders (except
for a very nice chunk for himself). When Grant refuses to
sign over America, Loveless will take him back out in the
Spider to blow up America one building at a time until Grant
- Why the wasted motion of take spider out, come back home,
take spider back out again? That sound you hear is the creaking
of a story being bent out of shape to accommodate another
supposedly hilarious scene where Jim West - who "don't
wear costumes", remember - attempts to rescue everybody
by donning a costume and - in drag - distract Loveless
with his questionable charms so he can slip Gordon a gun
and use more trick billiards (and a flamethrowing bra. Oh
that wascally Artie!). That Loveless would drop everything
to be dallied with by "The new girl" - not to
mention without wondering why she is interrupting his moment
of triumph (try that with Victor Von Doom and you'll wind
up a collection of floating atoms) - well, let's just say
it was a good thing I had given my Willing Suspension of
Disbelief the day off, or I would have had to take it to
the hospital the next day for several herniated disks. Note
to everyone involved in the construction of this scene:
it wasn't funny. It was simply ugly.
Loveless and Co. escape with Grant,
so Gordon invents the airplane to catch up with the
Spider. Had he invented it earlier, we might have been
able to figure out how they got to the Golden Spike
All the bad people die. I'll cover this
a bit later.
In the denouement, Rita reveals that
Prof. Escobar is not her father, but her husband.
Gordon looks genuinely hurt and West says, (truthfully)
"You could have told us that from the beginning."
Having thus revealed she has been playing both men
for saps, we are now set up for -
The last scene. In the TV series, when
the script ran a few minutes short, there was always
a closing scene on the Train.
Any loose ends were wrapped
by Artie employing the venerable "Mind if I ask
you a question?" gambit. Thus, to end our movie,
Gordon asks this same question, and is answered with
a simple, "Actually, I would mind." And they
ride the giant spider into the sunset. This was meant
to be a deconstructionist coda, the final 90s twist
on the source material. Instead, as the scene followed
the one where Rita admits she's been jerking the two
men around for the last two hours of screen time, this
final note just seems mean and dismissory.
Salma Hayek's farewell scene, one realizes suddenly just how little
she's had to do with the movie itself. Outside a piece of information
following the Lynch Mob scene, she can only effect the plot adversely,
first by causing everyone to be captured, and then being simply one
of a growing number of people needing to be rescued, until that final,
bitter twist. All these combine to make Rita Escobar the most infuriating,
worthless female character in an action film since Mary Goodnight
in The Man With the Golden Gun.
leaves us with Loveless' female bodyguards. Munitia and Amazonia
handle most of the wet work for Loveless, but this is dealt with
in an oblique fashion, mostly; thus, when the time for the final
showdown comes round, each and every one meets their fate, as befits
murderous henchmen, but this is also dealt with in a wishy-washy
fashion. Had these characters been men, each would have had more
significant fight and death scenes, but since they are women (I
guess) each comeuppance is dealt with quickly and in an almost ashamed
fashion (since Gordon ballet-dances his way out of the charge of
one, resulting in her falling to her death, the shame is justified).
This renders each of these characters distinctly unmemorable and
yes, Kevin Kline and his pirouetting. It hardly surprises me - but
still continues to disappoint me - that if a movie has an intellectual
character, Hollywood feels that this character must, perforce, be
effete, effeminate and ultimately ineffectual. Though Gordon's inventions
save the day more than once, he himself triumphs largely by accident
in the last showdown.
brings us to the last of our big name participants, Kenneth Branagh.
It is ironic that Branagh is the most accomplished actor on display
here, and he is guilty of the worst over-acting (and saying that
someone has managed to beat Kevin Kline in the overacting department
is indeed an astounding thing). Sporting a Mellodrammer Theatre
Southern accent that never uses one syllable where three may be
employed, Branagh is not just a caricature, he is a cartoon. At
least he appears to be having fun, even if we aren't.
movies manage to show four names in the writing credits and still
work as a seamless whole; this movie is not one of them. Some scenes
have the swift, subtle brushstrokes of (if not an artist) at least
a craftsman; others bear the careless splotches of a style that
Jackson Pollack would call uncontrolled and vulgar. There are times
that I miss the studio system. There are times that you pine for
a strong producer like David O. Selznick to knock some heads together
and scream, "What the f#@k are you doing?"
would I have done differently? Convince Will Smith that if he wants
to be an action hero, he's got leave the Fresh Prince schtick
behind. Past those moments, I have no problems with him as a wiseass
action hero. The characters of Rita and the Female Bunch could stand
to be strengthened by another rewrite - by one writer, please.
One drag bit is enough, unless you are a member of Monty Python's
Flying Circus or The Kids In The Hall. I would have Kenneth Branagh
and Kevin Kline switch roles. If I can accept a black James West,
an expatriate British Artemus Gordon is not too great a leap - or,
we've seen Branagh do a reasonable American accent before. Kline
knows how to walk that thin overacting line, to make a character
outrageous, yet acceptable. As the TV series was itself derived
from the James Bond craze, I would have made sure everyone had watched
at least one of the Bond movies.
what the hell do I know? I'm some guy who paid $2.00 to see this
in the theater and $9.99 for a used DVD (ah, blessed DVD! Ah, divine
Chapter Skip button!). I mean, it's no Star Trek 5, but there's
still fun to be had here. Sadly, watching that mechanical spider
makes you think of those squandered resources, resources that would
have been put to better use in something like a period-appropriate
version of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.
then they'd want Will Smith to star in it, so that dream dies a
particularly horrible, gagging death.
October 1, 2000