At a glittering new Orleans costume ball, sharp-suited government agent James West (Will Smith) finds himself alone with a slinky Asian temptress. As she proceeds to unveil her charms, a series of gunmen step down, as if by magic, from the paintings that adorn the room. Our hero, of course, is too quick for any of them. In an instant, he spins and fires, like a combination of Marshall Matt Dillon and Rambo, shooting the men dead, their bodies tumbling onto the floor like bulky potato sacks. It’s after a pregnant pause that we get the punchline: Another body plops onto the floor, this time from the ceiling. The body lands with an epic thud, a noise as resounding in its cornball obviousness as the badump-bump! of a borscht belt rim shot.

Wild Wild West is a movie that figures out how to go thud more often, and in more decadently extravagant ways, than just aboutany would-be blockbuster since Hudson Hawk. In this noisy, joyless, bizarrely static fiasco, every element on screen — the cliche 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 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.

Sonnenfeld doesn’t stage scenes, exactly; he trots out his wares. Look! — it’s a pair of spinning saw-edged Frisbees that zip through the air like lethal lawn-mower blades. Look! — it’s Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Arliss Loveless, a legless Confederate supervillain with a beard that seems to crawl up onto his jaw like some rare form of black moss. (There’s more personality in that facial hair than there is in Branagh’s smug, drawling-evil performance.) Look! — it’s Loveless’ giant weapon, an 80-foot-tall mechanical tarantula that stalks Monument Valley like a ’50s nuclear movie monster built out of an Erector set. The tarantula is certainly fun to watch, but after a while, it starts to look like the walking spirit of the modern blockbuster: a trash heap of eye candy tromping everything in its path.

The fusion of cheekiness and deliberately overscaled fantasy never jells. The core of Wild Wild West is Will Smith’s blase 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. D+

Wild Wild West
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