Warner Bros. // 1999 // 105 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Rob "Treg" Traegler (Retired) // November 26th, 1999
Will Smith and Kevin Kline almost team up in this latest questionable film adaptation of an early '70s TV show.
This is not a bad film, but it's not a good one either.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld and Will Smith join forces once again hoping to capitalize on the Men In Black magic they achieved in 1997. Rumors were flying about budget over-runs of near disastrous proportions as this production neared completion last spring. With a cost of over $100 million, Wild Wild West actually does offer plenty of eye candy for the blockbuster-hungry moviegoer. What's missing is something that big Hollywood money can't buy: a film with an attachment to its audience.
There's nothing to care for or about in this film. Smith, playing the legendary hero James West, is likable as usual. Kline does everything he can with his Artemus Gordon role. I just wish someone would tell every person in Hollywood that a man in drag hasn't been funny since the Uncle Miltie show. You know a film is grasping at straws when one actor is grabbing the actor in drag's breast. Salma Hayek (while always a joy to look at) recites her lines with a too earnest dedication that negates the believability level of the film. The one bright spot in the film is Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Arliss Loveless; a CGI field day of a character, he spends the entire film as a half a man, his body completely cut off below the waist. Branagh chews up the scenery every chance he gets, but if you look behind his eyes you can see that even he doubts the quality of the film. Most good, solid film villains let you see that they're having fun with the role, Branagh looks a little aggravated which helps his character, but kind of spoils the fun for the audience. There are explosions, stunts, chases, giant tarantulas and special effects galore, but the movie has no heart. Some scenes even scream last minute re-shoots, which I'm told actually happened about two weeks before the film's release last July.
Smith plays Special Agent James West, who's assigned by President Ulysses S. Grant to investigate the disappearances of several important government scientists. Many of the missing were specialists in mechanology (a term I'd never heard of before this film and I still kind of doubt its validity), a field that specializes in the inner workings of complex machinery, hence the giant mechanical tarantula. Grant (also played by Kevin Kline) teams West with Artemus Gordon, a master of disguises (although he makes a downright scary woman) and complex gadgets. Together they head west (no pun intended) to infiltrate Dr. Loveless' headquarters as he prepares for his "coming out" party. Most people thought Loveless was dead, but he emerges at the party as a leg-less freak in a complex wheelchair. After a humorous politically incorrect exchange between West and Loveless (one of the only refreshing things in the film), West and Gordon discover the bloody aftermath of a mass murdering tank built by Loveless, which is tied into the plot as also being the cause of the demise of Jim West's family. As an audience, we're supposed to connect to Smith's character emotionally at this point, but it just doesn't happen. They head for Utah, where Loveless is planning to capture President Grant as part of an outlandish scheme to control half of the United States. The third act consists of the giant mechanical tarantula blowing up a town, Smith in drag as well (more straws anyone?), climactic fight scenes, a flying bicycle and obligatory plot resolution. The best shot in the movie unfortunately, is the final shot of the film.
In my JURY OF ONE column a few months back, My alter ego Nostriladamus predicted that when Wild Wild West did become available on DVD, it would be packed to the gills with extras in order to compensate for mediocre box office receipts as well as mediocre filmmaking. Not only was I dead-on accurate, but the DVD package even has a Warner Brothers first -- an obtrusive red label on the front declaring that the DVD is "Loaded With Extras!" This much is true as the DVD features: "It's A Whole New West: An HBO First Look," feature length commentary with Barry Sonnenfeld (Smith and Kline weren't returning phone calls to the Warner DVD Division), two music videos, a documentary on the making of the Will Smith video, a documentary gallery entitled "Loveless' Lair," and a stills gallery (is it me, or are these stills gallery things useless on most DVDs or what?). On top of this, there are several DVD-ROM features available as well: The Steel Assassin, an interactive game, Artemus Gordon's Mind Projection Theater, featuring ten mini-documentaries, a Theatrical Website link and a Theatrical Trailer Sampler.
Does all this warrant the purchase of this disc? That's up to you as the consumer, but I don't see huge sales numbers for this title; the film is just too weak. Like The Haunting, the studio is banking on extras galore to inspire the purchase of a mediocre film. Warners at least has the decency to release this one at a street price of $19.99, which may work with the guy who goes to Best Buy weekly and grabs a handful of DVDs to build up his collection, but a discerning buyer like myself will always hold out for a better title. The documentaries are mildly interesting and informative, but a behind the scenes look at something that isn't very exciting in front of the scenes ultimately falls flat. The commentary track by Barry Sonnenfeld resorts to a "this is a soundstage, this is all CGI" type of mindset. He does offer brief insights to his filmmaking process, but never discusses the critical lambasting he took when this film was released. In all reality, if this were the work of a first-time director, he would never be heard of again.
Picture quality on the disc looks fine, complete with a 1:85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Black levels are true, flesh tones are realistic except for a couple of scenes in which Branagh looks a bit pinkish, maybe he was too hot in that get-up. I did notice some zebra-ing in a couple of scenes, but I believe I also remember seeing that in the theater (yes, I did see this dud in the theater) so it was probably a directorial choice or screw-up, depending on how you look at it. The 5.1 Surround track may be the best thing going for this disc. Channel separation is intense, featuring whizzing gunshots, galloping horses, explosions and Elmer Bernstein's triumphant score has been done great justice.
If you're thinking the way Warners wants you to think, the "Loaded With Extras!" sticker alone will prompt a purchase of this DVD.
Fans of the TV show will wish those episodes were available on DVD instead. I tried to like this film; it just didn't like me back.
Warners is guilty of readily admitting this is a bad film by packing the DVD full of everything but a stuffed Will Smith doll.
Review content copyright © 1999 Rob "Treg" Traegler; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Behind-the-scenes Documentaries
* Music videos by Will Smith and Enrique Iglesias
* Director Commentary
* Stills Gallery
* Theatrical Trailer
* DVD-ROM Compatible
* Interactive Game