Sunday, October 5, 2008


Remember the nifty gadget in "Men in Black" that Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith used to erase a person's memory? Some moviegoers who suffer through director Barry Sonnenfeld's big-screen bastardization of the CBS-TV cult classic sci-fi oater "Wild Wild West" may wish they could get their hands on that thingamajig. "Wild Wild West" (No Stars out of ****) qualifies as one of the worst movies ever adapted from a groundbreaking TV show. Indeed, even a movie as execrable as "The Avengers" surpasses this saddle sore sagebrusher. Audiences too young to recall the Robert Conrad & Ross Martin frontier farce will have fewer objections with this frivolous "Blazing Saddles" spin on the venerable TV series. Die-hard fans of the show should hole up and wait until this uninspired epic turns up on Saturday afternoon television between vinyl siding ads.

Sure, "Wild Wild West" captures the essence of the TV show, but Sonnenfeld and his scenarists cannot imitate its artistry. The title credits evoke memories of the paneled inserts that appeared during the cliffhanger moments and Elmer Bernstein's orchestral score replicates some of the punch of Richard Markowitz's original music. Nevertheless, this disastrous, $100-million plus dust raiser ends up as empty-headed as a sun-scorched steer skull in the sand. Inheriting the James West role created by Robert Conrad, Will Smith looks about as out of place as he would look at a KKK rally. Smith supercharged "Men in Black" and "Independence Day," but he is thoroughly miscast. Moreover, the short-sighted Sonnenfeld never justifies James West's change of color. Neither Kevin Kline as sidekick Artemus Gordon nor noted Shakespearean thespian Kenneth Branagh as the dastardly Confederate egomaniac Dr. Arliss Loveless redeem this thinly woven tumbleweed tale.

The back story that the sextet of scribes drummed up for James West is equally as contrived. Not only do they fail to address the race makeover, but they also overlook the fact that the Northern setting where West's family and friends were massacred was more racist than parts of the Deep South. Finally, couldn't Sonnenfeld have devised a better explanation for West's cultural change? Not that most people on the even the year 2000 in our hopelessly politically correct culture will remember it, but African-Americans found their career choices extremely circumscribed during Reconstruction. Any excuse would have been better than what "Wild Wild West" serves up. And the racism here lacks the venomous vibes of "Blazing Saddles."

Six scenarists received credit for this pastiche of a western. Who wrote what remains a mystery, but they dredged up a story so lame-brained that it resembles skits from a second-rate "Saturday Night Live" episode cross-bred with an antiquated Cold War thriller. President Ulysses S. Grant (Kevin Kline in such bad make-up that he passes for a bearded Charles Grodin) orders West and Gordon to learn who is kidnapping the greatest scientific minds of the century. West prefers to work alone, and Artemus feels similarly about him. Another problem with "Wild Wild West" is that it acts more like a prequel. Our heroes start out hating each other. West is an Army Captain on the trail of ex-Rebel General 'Blood Bath' McGrath (Ted Levine of "Heat") while Gordon is a U.S. Marshal on the same trail. Essentially, West is a shoot-first & ask-questions later kind of hombre, while Gordon is the inventive alternative. He relies on his quirky gimmicks and falls back on gunplay as a last resort. They spend most of the movie competing with each other instead of working together, and this rivalry must have crept into their performances. Smith and Kline kindle little of the chemistry and charisma that made Conrad and Martin so memorable. At the end of the movie, President Grant makes them his first two Secret Service agents. Director Barry Sonnenfeld brings a wry sense of humor to "Wild Wild West." While Sonnenfeld's askew brand of comedy complimented "The Addams Family," "Addams Family Values," "Get Shorty," and "Men in Black," the humor wears thin in this western. Casting Kenneth Branagh as a legless villain must have seemed comical on paper, but the special effects buffoonery grows as tiresome and tedious as gibes about handicapped people and blacks. Occasionally, a scene or two nearly works, such as projecting the last image on the retina of a dead scientist. Will Smith's James West sabotages the scene by repeating ad nauseam: "That is a man's head," as if anything remotely human mattered in this ersatz opus. Furthermore, Sonnenfeld wrangles everything from previous summer epics. The Lego-style, 80 foot, mechanical tarantula that storms through Utah's Monument Valley looks as clunky as this movie sounds.

Scenarists S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, Jeffrey Price, Peter Seaman, and Jim & James Thomas break the cardinal rule of all action flicks. Neither James West nor Artemus Gordon is ever in jeopardy. Sonnenfeld and his joke happy writers erect hoops for our heroes to leap through but they never set fire to those hoops. In other words, the filmmakers make it far too easy for our heroes. The magnetic collar scene is probably the worst offender. Rivaling it is James West's escape from a lynch party, and the final assault on the giant tarantula will have you yawning. West dispatches several henchmen with the aplomb of 007, right down to knocking a blade-wielding villain overboard so he can quip, "No more Mr. Knife Guy." At least, in the TV show, Robert Conrad makes the brawls look believable; Conrad foreshadowed Jackie Chan in that the former performed all his own stunts, sometimes at his own peril.

"Wild Wild West" struggles so desperately to be funny that it degenerates into a travesty. The film dabbles in sexual innuendoes that seem extreme for its PG-13 rating. Parents should think twice before exposing their children to these questionable shenanigans. Overblown special effects, sketchy characters, zero chemistry between the leads, gratuitous humor, and unsavory violence ride roughshod over anything remotely memorable in this train wreck of a movie. Summing it up, "Wild Wild West" is no cinch.

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