Wild Wild West
(1999, directed by Barry Sonnenfield)

Does anyone remember the Wild Wild West TV series back in the "old" days? I do. I absolutely loved the show, the fights, and the cool gizmos they had. I loved the train that they used for traveling. And I loved the lead characters, James West and Artemus Gordon. So, when I heard that they were going to be making a film version of Wild Wild West, my interest was piqued. When I heard who was starring in the lead role, my curiosity got the better of me.

So, Will Smith isn't exactly the James T. West that I remember from the old series. Heck, for one thing, there is a small matter of the racial difference between Will Smith and Robert Conrad (the original James West). While racial differences might not be a big deal to us today (at least in some parts of the country), it was a very big deal indeed in the post-Civil War era in which the TV series and film are both set. I wondered how the creative team would address that issue in the film.

In the new movie version, Will Smith plays the character that suits him the best, a "shoot first, ask questions later" action hero. Kevin Kline plays Smith's opposite, Artemus Gordon, who, as a gentleman inventor, believes that violence is the last resort and can be avoided. Kenneth Branagh is the evil Dr. Loveless, bent on taking over the United States; it's up to the mismatched and unwilling pair of West and Gordon to stop him and find the missing scientists Loveless has kidnapped. Oh, and Salma Hayek has a nominal role playing a potential love-interest to Gordon and the obligatory female in the movie.

Barry Sonnenfield (Men in Black, which also starred Smith) directs the movie, and you can see similar styles in both the directing and Smith's acting. The movie has its flaws, but it's a fun movie to see nonetheless. As a clockwork western, Wild Wild West follows the genre well. The special effects of today's technology give the movie a very similar feel to the original series. The fancy contraptions that are spotted throughout the movie fit into the 1860s era, and the giant mechanical tarantula does the clockwork western tradition proud.

The movie script is filled with gun fights, fist fights, funky gadgets, comic dialogue, and some good acting. There was a great deal of laughter in the theater while watching the movie, and the writers threw in some interesting images and references to some of items within our modern culture.

However, while the movie is a fun watch, it does have its flaws. Certain elements in the movie were unexplained, some scenes didn't flow quite naturally, and the acting, while overall very good, had its moments of annoyance. Salma Hayek's character in particular serves no real purpose in the movie except to run around in scanty outfits, foil one or two of West's plans (accidentally, of course), and be the butt (pun intended) of some female anatomy jokes and comments.

The movie does try to address Smith's race through some plot intricacies instead of ignoring the matter. At one point in the movie, some Southern landowners intend on lynching West, but through some cunning dialogue (and help from Gordon) he manages to escape. There are several mentions of West being a "boy" (within post-Civil War culture), but West encounters no other racist attitudes except for where it would make good plot sense or a funny reportiore. Will Smith's Jim West is not the cool, smooth James West portrayed by Robert Conrad. For one thing, Will Smith plays West too much like a reckless cowboy version of James Bond. For the Wild Wild West purist, Smith's portrayal is too radically different to be enjoyable.

Kevin Kline plays a wonderful version of Artemus Gordon whose skills at invention and science make you wonder why Loveless bothered to kidnap the other scientists when Artemus Gordon was such a genius. Kline's acting plays counterpoint to Smith's West. Gordon is a refined scholar, inventor, and gentleman relying on subterfuge, disguise and civilized means of obtaining information. Even when faced with the difficult decision of inflicting violence or being killed, Gordon finds a non-violent means to the end.

Kenneth Branagh is amazing as Dr. Arliss Loveless, a maniacal egotistical Southern gentleman with a borderline psychosis who intends on extracting revenge on the United States for the loss of his lower half. And due to modern special effects, Branagh has no legs whatsoever in the movie. Branagh's acting is absolutely wonderful, especially when coupled with Kline's. They both outshine Smith whenever they appear in the same scenes; however, Kline did manage to tone down his acting ability whenever he appeared as West's partner. Branagh, however, one-upped Smith in more than a few scenes, including their final confrontation.

If you want a rough-and-tumble, shoot-em-out movie, then go see this film. It's got the prerequisites for a "guy" film -- fist fights, gun fights, scantily clad women, lots of neat gadgets and cute, witty dialogue.

If you want a movie with depth, feeling, and great character and plot development, go see Shakespeare in Love. This movie definitely falls into the summer adventure file stereotypes.

[ by Jade Falcon ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.