Wild Wild West is a 1999 American steampunk Western film co-produced and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and written by S. S. Wilson and Brent Maddock alongside Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, from a story penned by brothers Jim and John Thomas. Loosely adapted from The Wild Wild West, a 1960s television series created by Michael Garrison, it is the only production since the television film More Wild Wild West (1980) to feature the characters from the original series.
The film stars Will Smith (who previously collaborated with Sonnenfeld on Men in Black two years earlier) and Kevin Kline as two U.S. Secret Service agents who work together to protect U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant (Kline, in a dual role) and the United States from all manner of dangerous threats during the American Old West. The film features a supporting cast consisting of Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek, Ted Levine, and M. Emmet Walsh, as well as an orchestral film score by Western film score veteran Elmer Bernstein and extensive visual effects courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic.
Released theatrically in the United States on June 30, 1999 by Warner Bros. and produced on a $170 million budget (making it one of the most expensive films ever made when adjusting for inflation at the time of its release), Wild Wild West was a commercial failure, grossing only $113.8 million domestically and $108.3 million overseas for a worldwide total of $222.1 million. Receiving negative reviews from critics, the film was nominated for eight Razzies and won five at the 20th Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Picture and Worst Original Song (for the song “Wild Wild West” by Smith).
At one particularly explosive stage in this eager-to-please holiday parade, an entire Western town is systematically blown to bits. Among the buildings demolished, one shop-sign clearly reads: Kasdan’s Ironmongers. A sly reference perhaps to writer-director Lawrence Kasdan who, in 1985’s Silverado, attempted to make an old-fashioned Western with new-fangled neuroses. Perhaps Barry Sonnenfeld is symbolically destroying Kasdan’s stall, saying, ‘No, this is how you modernise the seemingly moribund cowboy genre, sunshine!’
Reading anything into Wild Wild West is a bit like seeking the truth in a plate of alphabet spaghetti. Adapted from a spoofy 1960s TV show once described as ‘Maverick meets The Man From UNCLE’ and assured a wham-bam, family-bucket July 4 opening by bankable star Will Smith, it was never going to be anything other than an expensive piece of gadget-driven hokum. Big star. Big effects. Big hit song. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything, if you believe virtually every critic in America. WWW has endured name-calling to embarrass any playground. It’s not that bad, of course, but it’s no Men In Black Hats – and that was surely the idea. In the aftermath of the Civil War, snake-hipped government gunslinger James West (Smith) is teamed with boffinly master of disguise Artemus Gordon (a likeable Kline) at the behest of President Ulysses Grant (Kline again, for no good reason other than egomania or budget-capping). Aggrieved Confederate inventor Dr. Arliss Loveless (Branagh) has developed a vast weapon of mass destruction – the show-stopping mechanical Tarantula – with which he intends to create a Divided States Of America. Our heroes track him down in their customised train, picking up the vengeful beauty Rita (Hayek) along the way, and build to an effects-crazy duel in the Utah desert.
There’s not much else to say about the story. It’s merely an excuse for a truly dazzling fusion of modelwork, matte and CGI, exemplified by the screen-eating tarantula and Branagh’s motorised wheelchair (Loveless, you see, is legless – a seamless digital illusion road-tested by Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump). Jules Verne-inspired, this is the past looking to the future, but fed by the present.
The smoke-spewing contraptions are satisfyingly rickety, satanic and sort of 19th-century-looking, but they still serve to unbalance the historical/mythical setting, as if the idea of Will Smith cleaning up the Old West wasn’t sensational enough. As ever these days, it’s a case of, ‘Let me through, I’m an effects supervisor!’ (Tellingly, outside of Branagh’s panto silliness and Kline’s incessant dressing-up, human performance seems to be positively discouraged – perhaps that’s why M. Emmet Walsh is the only other half-recognisable supporting player).
It’s a pity this supposed family entertainment exerts such laddish exuberance: pushed-up cleavages are everywhere you look and Hayek is insultingly called upon to do little more than be shapely (the scene where our heroes lasciviously ogle her exposed bottom is pure Benny Hill). The script veers uneasily between weak gags (Kline naming his flying machine the ‘Air Gordon’) and some spectacularly misjudged white guilt-tripping about slavery, as delivered by Smith, who must sweet-talk some rednecks to stop himself getting lynched at one especially uncomfy, apparently comedic juncture.
The kids in the audience with Empire just wanted him to fall in the mud again. Now that’s funny.Tony Blair recently complained that he had scars on his back from trying to precipitate change in the public sector. If that’s the case, Will Smith must bear the marks of permanent spinal injury after carrying Wild Wild West to the box office, only to be swatted aside when the so-called ‘mechanology’ is on view. It’s obviously a thankless task being a human in late-90s blockbusters. But then we’re expected to pay for it. And what thanks do we get?