The Bad Movie Report


Wild Wild West

Now 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 in Black.

Know what? You did it again. You came up with a better movie than they did.

Wild 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 glee.

First, 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 Artist's Conception:  Critic's Opinionsdraw, 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.

As 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.

Since this is Artemus Gordon, he is in disguise when he finally encounters McGrath. This is wrong on SO many levels.As 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.

We 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).

The Loveless character of this version is a departure from its predecessor. Dr. Miguelito Loveless, one of the better "Ah'm an imp!"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 ".
This is just asking for trouble
The hilarious "That is a man's head" scene
  • 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).

Now, 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:


Mr. West. How nice of you to join us tonight and add color to these monochromatic proceedings.

Well, when a fella comes back from the dead, I find that an occasion to stand up and be counted.

Miss 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.

Why, 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.

Perhaps the lovely Miss East will keep you from being a slave to your disappointment.

Well, you know beautiful women. They encourage you one minute, then cut the legs out from under you the next.

(His smile frozen)
...Quite. Excuse me, Mr. West.

This 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.

  • It never will.

Oooh, you tart.  You had me thinking things were going to get better.  While 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.

Since 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 massacre.

  • 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.
Kline and Smith make a wrong turn on the way to Baron Munchausen auditions


  • 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 lazy writing.

West 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.

I think I can practically guarantee that the spider was one of the "We're gonna need a bigger shoe."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.

Where was I?

Oh, 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.

Now where was I?

In 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 surrenders.
  • 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.

No, Will!  No, Kenneth!  NOOOOOOOOOO!






This is not a picture I wanted to see.

  • 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 so quickly.
  • 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. Shane!  Come back, Shane!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.
With 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.

Which 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 superfluous.

Ah, 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.

Gawrsh, I'm wicked!Which 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.

Some 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?"

What 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.

But what the hell do I know? I'm some guy who paid $2.00 to see this Artist's Conception:  WWW Production Processmovie 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.

But then they'd want Will Smith to star in it, so that dream dies a particularly horrible, gagging death.




- October 1, 2000