Wild Wild West

1999, PG-13, 152 min. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Starring Musetta Vander, Frederique Van Der Wal, Bai Ling, M. Emmet Walsh, Ted Levine, Salma Hayek, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, Will Smith.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 2, 1999

The pillaging of classic (and in this case, not-so-classic) television series marches relentlessly onward. One wonders where Hollywood will turn once the final cathodial grave is plundered (sure to be, as I've said before, NBC's mid-Sixties travesty My Mother the Car, though personally I'm holding out for a possible John Woo-helmed adaptation of The Courtship of Eddie's Father, with Harvey Keitel presumably filling in for the late Bill Bixby), though I've noticed Saturday morning fare has as-yet-unexplored possibilities. Sonnenfeld's updating of the adventures of Civil War-era G-man Jim West (played on the small screen by Robert Conrad and here by Smith) and inventor-cum-master of disguise Artemus Gordon (Kline) has all the earmarks of a summertime smash, filled to bursting with all manner of explosions, vaguely witty repartee, and enough digital aftereffects to make it palatable to the Sega set. Still, watching the film in a packed screening the other evening, I couldn't shake the niggling feeling that something, somewhere, was missing. Ah, yes, a plot. Sonnenfeld, who occupies a soft red spot in my heart if only because of his exemplary cinematography work on a pair of early Coen Brothers films (the locally lensed Blood Simple and Raising Arizona), has in recent years been actively transforming himself into a director of the type of budgetary and effects-driven extravaganza (Men in Black) that fuels the studios' massive summer movie push. This, to me, seems a counterclockwise way of going about things, beginning a career with top-notch work like the Coens and progressing steadily downward and away from such things as storylines and narrative cohesion. Perhaps it's just me, but wouldn't it be nice to know a bit more about the characters in a film than who's the good guy and who's the bad? Things like, say, why they're good, or bad, or indifferent? In Wild Wild West, alias Smith and Kline are paragons of virtue, though not above the occasional leer at a passing (and thoroughly underutilized) Hayek, while sneering evildoer Dr. Loveless (Branagh, barely recognizable beneath gobs of makeup and a sprouting of facial hair clearly cribbed from Snidely Whiplash), digitally rendered half a man, is so one-dimensionally foul it's as if he's a product of Pixar's Angry Animation team. With a trio of buxom femme fatales by his side sporting names such as Munitia and Amazonia, Loveless is the most interesting, unintentional Freudian gag in ages. The script by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock (Ghost Dad) is so jumbled and the direction so chaotic that it's often hard to tell what's going on -- where, when, and why. Comic-book villains crop up scene by scene only to inexplicably perish moments later, and by the time the whole clamorous mess is over your head hurts from sheer puzzlement. Granted, that giant spider is a jaw-dropper of an effect, but animatronic arachnids can rarely carry a picture, even in these days of pure computer graphics. Come back, Mr. Conrad.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Barry Sonnenfeld Films
Nine Lives
Kevin Spacey gets trapped inside the body of his family's cat

Steve Davis, Aug. 12, 2016

Men in Black 3
Josh Brolin's spooky good impersonation of the younger Tommy Lee Jones is the only fresh thing happening in this sequel.

Marc Savlov, May 25, 2012

More by Marc Savlov
The Marksman
Liam Neeson is the action man again in this border thriller

Jan. 15, 2021

Beautiful Something Left Behind
The hard path to healing when kids suffer a death in the family

Jan. 8, 2021

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Wild Wild West, Barry Sonnenfeld, Musetta Vander, Frederique Van Der Wal, Bai Ling, M. Emmet Walsh, Ted Levine, Salma Hayek, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, Will Smith

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle