Barry Sonnenfeld was a cinematographer in the 1980s, standing behind the camera of such interesting films such as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, and When Harry Met Sally. He turned to directing in the 1990s, turning out commercial, financially successful, largely forgettable films. Now he offers Wild Wild West, which undoubtedly will make bundles of money which, in turn, will encourage him to make ever more forgettable drivel.
Wild Wild West is a totally derivative pastiche. It gives you the feeling that Sonnenfeld (who also produced it) sat down with his team and, for lack of any genuine thoughts of their own, decided to take a little bit of this formula and a little bit of that, a lot of special effects, and plenty of lame jokes based on race, amputation, and sex. Put it together with a charismatic star or two or three and – bingo! – we’ve got ourselves a gold mine.
WWW is an action, sci-fi, comedy, western, buddy flick. The buddies, played by Will Smith and Kevin Kline, two very talented comic actors, are a pair of agents assigned by President Grant to find out who is kidnapping top American scientists. Turns out the evil guy is Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) who has a scheme, using the scientific knowhow he has captured, to topple the United States government, return the West to Mexico, and put himself in charge of whatever he hasn’t given away. That is the entire plot. There’s a bad guy and we’ve gotta get ‘im. The rest is filler.
Smith is a charmer and works hard here to no avail. The whole thing is so forced, so leaden, he sinks along with the rest. Kline’s biggest comic turn is when he is undercover in drag in a saloon full of hookers. Drag is a long and honored comic tradition, but it requires some wit to sustain it beyond the level of adolescent humor. Wit is missing here – in spades. (Racial puns/slurs are a main element of the humor offered.)
Branagh’s Loveless is Dr. Strangelove with a southern accent; he starts out at a level of high intensity and then the level doesn’t vary for the rest of the film. An amputee from the waist down, he provides the target for the amputee jokes ("I’m just as stumped as you are…"). The other bad guy is Blood Bath McGrath (Ted Levine), a lecher who lost an ear during the (Civil) War and has a miniature loudspeaker, a small version of those on old phonographs, sticking out of his head where the ear should be. Odd. Unfunny. So, of course, Sonnenfeld throws in a scene with some disgusting fluid coming from the ear. After all a movie ain’t a movie, these days, unless you’ve got a gross-out moment, too. And, given the predictability of all of this, can’t you just guess what visual pun Sonnenberg will make with that loudspeaker?
The women in the film function only as sex objects and to serve as the targets of (lame) sex jokes. Not one is a realized character. There is one extended scene that has Smith and Kline overheard as they discuss how different falsies feel to the touch, with the dialogue drawn so as to give the listener the impression that Smith and Kline are actually (gasp!) touching each other. Aren’t you hysterical? Or, by slight chance, have you seen that setup before? A few dozen times you say?
Now some of you might – in spite of all said above – still intend to pay your good money to see this film, because of all the buzz about the fortune they spent on special effects. (They could have rebuilt Bosnia with the waste from this film.) The special effects are well executed. They are also as derivative as the rest of the movie – Jules Verne mutated through George Lucas.
Have I left anything out? Oh yes, the score. Remember Elmer Bernstein? (No relation to the late Leonard.) Bernstein is credited with an astounding 220 movie scores over the last five decades, including one of the most memorable of all film scores, The Man with the Golden Arm. His style is instantly recognizable. He has applied it to everything from jazz to flamenco sounds – and it is always recognizable as Bernstein. With Wild Wild West, he dishes up some country western cum disco sounds for the early saloon segment, but most of the rest is Bernstein’s riff on Star Wars music.
Originality was not on the checklist for anything in this movie. Wild Wild West gives recycling a bad name.