Owen Gleiberman
June 30, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Wild Wild West

type
Movie
Current Status
In Season
mpaa
PG-13
Wide Release Date
06/30/99
performer
Salma Hayek, Kevin Kline, Will Smith, Kenneth Branagh, Ted Levine, M. Emmet Walsh
director
Barry Sonnenfeld
distributor
Warner Bros.
author
Brent Maddock, Jeffrey Price, Peter Seaman
genre
Western, Sci-fi and Fantasy

We gave it a D+

”Wild Wild West” is a movie that figures out how to go thud more often, and in more decadently extravagant ways, than just about any would-be blockbuster since ”Hudson Hawk.” In this noisy, joyless, bizarrely static fiasco, every element on screen — the cliché Old West settings, the computerized effects, Will Smith’s so-slick-they’re-Teflon smarty-pants quips — seems to let the air out of the one before it.

The director is Barry Sonnenfeld, who previously teamed with Will Smith on ”Men in Black,” and once again he has made a comedy that tries to be all things to all people: theme park, laff riot, buddy movie, creature-feature spectacle. But the aliens-among-us premise of ”Men in Black” gave Sonnenfeld much more to play with. Even when the jokes fell flat (which, to me, was most of the time), you could always be diverted by extraterrestrials whose heads looked like exploding eggplants. ”Wild Wild West,” a loose takeoff on the popular ’60s TV series, would like to conjure a surreal collision of Western and sci-fi, but the movie is straitjacketed by the stodgy overfamiliarity of its horses-and-holsters setting. I mean, really, is there anything left to parody about the West? The movie, a piece of mutant six-gun japery, seems to make up its rules as it goes along, and the result is a series of stale, misfired gags (Bruce Lee send-up, anyone? How about Kevin Kline in drag?) set against incongruous 1869 frontier backdrops.

The fusion of cheekiness and deliberately overscaled fantasy never jells. The core of ”Wild Wild West” is Will Smith’s blasé fearlessness, but the audience has little to do but sit back and chuckle at his ironic distance from situations that had no conviction to begin with. Of course, his James West is also the film’s image of a stalwart black superman-cowboy, and Smith is now so invulnerable in his ”street” nonchalance that he’s in danger of becoming an automaton of attitude.

As West’s partner, Artemus Gordon, an inventor of Bondian gadgets, Kevin Kline acts with full-tilt whimsy, making him the ”feminine” half of this buddy romance. At one point, the two get stuck in magnetized collars and end up scurrying away from each other, only to be pulled back into a forced embrace. I’d say that the movie was trying to tell us something, except that this brand of shtick, which dates back to the Hope-Crosby road pictures and was kicked into a more precocious era with ”Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” now seems as ancient as vaudeville. West and Gordon, like Butch and Sundance, get to leap off a cliff, only this time, instead of yelling ”S—!” they land in a muddy lagoon that looks full of it. That’s a moment that, upon replay, could make an actor wish he’d just stayed in his trailer.

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