Monday, February 17, 2014

Yes, but what went right in Wild Wild West?

Wild Wild West (1999) holds a 38 rating on Metacritic, where the positive reviews say things like
Lots of laughs, lots of fisticuffs, lots of cool toys, lots of stuff getting blown up: Who could ask for anything more from a summer movie? (Peter Brunette)
which seems like damning with faint praise; and
A movie that's dazzling as you watch it and immediately unsatisfying afterward. (Stephanie Zacharek)
I'd go farther than that and say that this is a film that's rarely satisfying while it's being watched. And you might wonder at that since it has so much going for it: Will Smith and Kevin Kline are always charismatic; Barry Sonnenfeld does a lot of quality entertainment; and there's clearly a lot of money behind what the producers hoped would be a crowd-pleasing action-sci-fi-comedy.

Now I'm not really sure I could enumerate what went wrong with this film. I mean, I could point to a few things, but that would probably only scratch the surface--and this is a rich film, with something special that won't work for everyone.

Maybe you're annoyed that Salma Hayek as the good girl isn't given much to do or that the other women--mostly dressed in bustiers and working for the evil Loveless--are given little-to-no agency. Maybe you don't like the racial humor and the sight of Will Smith playing at a Sambo accent doesn't work for you. (I think it actually does work as a race joke, since Smith's character West is using that accent to disarm some Southerners. That is, the jokes on the racists. But it doesn't work since it's out of character.) Maybe the ridiculous puns and "witticisms" don't work for you, especially when the joke has to do with a reference to our time. (After building an airplane, Artemus Gordon decides to name it "Air Gordon"--a joke that only makes sense in the 90s, when Air Jordan was a recognizable name.)

(Special ughs for when Will Smith beats up a guy with knives for hands and then says, "No more Mr. Knife Guy.")

And then there's all the action and sci-fi sequences: the giant mechanical tarantula, the fight in the engine room, the death machine chase, etc. These might work by themselves, but the whole framework of the movie fails to give them much weight, and mostly just uses them for cheap jokes. (When Gordon (Kline) and West (Smith) get giant magnets on their neck, how long will we have to wait for the inevitable drawn-to-your-belt-buckle-fellatio joke? Not long.)

So... what went right here?

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