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How the West Was Dumb

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 1998; Page C11

 


"The Wild, Wild West" is a rambling wreck from computer tech and a helluva souvenir – that is, for those interested in artifacts representing the American movie at its worst.

As the French say, quelle disappointment. Or, as we say in this country, this one goes bowwow!

The hopes were raised so high in the reteaming of director Barry Sonnenfeld, with his witty, edgy sense of black humor, and star Will Smith, with his fresh smoothness, his natural grace and his immense likability. Their previous collaboration, "Men in Black" of two years back, was a consummate summer entertainment: hip, spectacular, unusual, clever and so textured with levels of humor that it could be enjoyed time and again.

But whatever magic attended that one has been replaced with joyless tedium and superficiality, unless you're in the mood to see a really big mechanical spider. It seems as if everybody associated with the project had a very bad day – month after month after month.

The film, as baby boomers will know – their collective memory being the true subject of most American moviemaking these days – is based on a famous and unbeloved series that ran on CBS in the backwash of the James Bond craze of the 1960s. Robert Conrad, he of the cardboard profile and the monotone voice, played humorless Secret Service agent James T. West. He wore a little bolero and really tight pants and lots of leather gear. I always thought he looked more like a tango champ than a cowboy. That aside, the gimmick was that although the series was set in the eponymous wild, wild West, the plots looted conceits from the Bond pictures: larger-than-life mad scientists bent on world domination, using fantastic machines and amazing gizmos centuries ahead of their time; a bevy of beautiful dolls with goofy names. Of course it did this on a TV budget, so the results were always underwhelming, and co-star Ross Martin's confabulations as West's partner Artemus Gordon always turned on that that dreariest of all show biz artifices, the disguise. You knew inevitably that the one ugly person in the show would turn out to be Artemus.

This "Wild, Wild West" re-creates all those things, except this time it's on an A-movie budget. So the bevy of beautiful babes is much bevvier (and more top-bevy than ever before) and the gizmos and gadgets, freed by computer techniques from the requirement of actually existing in space, are bigger and nuttier than ever before. The scientist is madder than ever, though he's not larger than life, he's smaller than life, having been cut in half. Where's the rest of him? Only the computer knows. And, true to the original to the tiniest detail, the heroes are even more cardboard than before.

This is a movie with plenty of technology – you know, steam-powered spiders, jet-powered bicycles, falsies with boxing gloves hidden in them – but no chemistry. The actors just stare sullenly at each other. Did they despise each other? Was there a whose-Winnebago-is-bigger thing going on? Does Kevin Kline have some sort of problem with Will Smith? Does he hate rap? Does he wish he were the bigger star, not the comic sidekick? Why is Salma Hayek even here? She can't act, and there are others who jiggle better, no?

The chemistry problem is major. What has characterized Sonnenfeld's work, despite its technical legerdemain, has been his ability to get synced performances that lit each other up. Consider how brilliantly Smith and Tommy Lee Jones interacted on "MIB," or the ensemble playing in "Get Shorty"; there's nothing of that pleasure here. Then there's the bevy issue: The studio has been madly pushing three supermodels who appear as the villain's cohorts in its advertising and various magazines willing to whore for Hollywood. But the three – Frederique van Der Wal, Musetta Vander and Sofia Eng – are so inert they could be inflatable. They hardly register.

The plot is piffle. A deranged Confederate sympathizer played by the upper half of Kenneth Branagh has been kidnapping scientists from the America of 1869, for nefarious purposes. West and Gordon are assigned to get to the bottom of it, although it's an immediate case of bicker-bicker-bicker. West is a man of immediate force, whereas Gordon is a techno-freak, given to oblique approaches to the problem behind a series of feints and jabs. They squabble a lot, but almost never with any high style or amusement.

The film's one pleasure is Branagh, who as Arliss Loveless seems to be playing a neurotic Tennessee Williams heroine under his weird beard and the computer magic that eliminates all of him from the navel down. His high, shimmering, operatic versions of the accents of the South should set regional cooperation back years. Only when he's on-screen does the thing have any energy at all.

It seems that Branagh – think Captain Nemo of ground, not submersible, combat – has been assembling various infernal machines, the most infernal of which is a cast-iron tarantula as big as the Ritz. This is a fairly impressive vehicle, a clanking, gear-spinning gizmo that lurches about the landscape on eight cantilevered limbs that look like they'd been built from struts out of the Brooklyn Bridge but are as prehensile as monkeys' thumbs. But Sonnenfeld really doesn't get much out of it. We get to see it mulch some small wooden towns. Big deal. Why not turn it loose on the New York or Washington of 1869, since you don't have to actually build those things but can simply instruct a computer to do the heavy lifting. But no: We just get to watch this thing spit fireballs into saloons.

West and Gordon fight it with a flying bicycle. Yes, this is what the Warner Bros. billions have bought: a flying bicycle. That's the problem with the entire movie: It's big where it should be small and small where it should be big. And long where it should be short. And stupid where it should be smart. And it's so dull it feels as if its running time should be measured with a calendar, not a clock.

"The Wild, Wild West" (four days long, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for phony violence and mild decolletage.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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