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Smith Misfires in 'Wild Wild' Mess

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 1999

  Movie Critic

'Wild Wild West'
Kevin Kline and Will Smith team together in "Wild Wild West." (Warner Bros.)

Barry Sonnenfeld
Will Smith;
Kevin Kline;
Kenneth Branagh;
Salma Hayek;
M. Emmet Walsh;
Ted Levine
Running Time:
1 hour, 47 minutes
Contains bloodless shooting and explosions, sexual double entendres and a couple shots of Salma Hayek's tush
The best thing about "Wild Wild West" is the jaunty, Stevie Wonder-sampling title tune by Will Smith, and I'm already sick of that. Besides, the movie makes you wait an hour and 47 minutes before it even lets you hear it.

"Wild Wild Waste" is more like it.

Waste of time, waste of money and colossal waste of talent.

Let's face it – hordes of people are not going to rush out to a 19th-century costume drama, even one with an 80-foot robot spider, to see Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh and Salma Hayek (although Ms. Hayek certainly is easy on the eyes). The real reason anyone wants to watch "WWW" is "MiB." You're hoping against hope that pairing superstar Smith with his "Men in Black" director Barry Sonnenfeld will produce the same movie magic as their 1997 hit.

You are wrong.

Okay, this film based on the 1960s TV comedy/sci-fi/western starring Robert Conrad does have some of the same ingredients as "Men in Black." As special government agent Jim West, Smith gets to wear cool shades, dress in black and shoot guns (albeit the 1869 version of Ray-Bans, a cowboy outfit and a six-shooter). Instead of Tommy Lee Jones, his quasi-adversarial sidekick is the wacky inventor Artemus Gordon (Kline), who keeps him supplied with "Get Smart"-style secret weapons like a bayonet that pops out of his boot tip. In the special effects category, West does battle not with aliens but with the evil mastermind and double amputee, Dr. Arliss Loveless (Branagh), who plans to take over the United States with a giant flame-throwing hydraulic robot in the shape of a tarantula.

Yeah, I know, it sounds terrific, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, Smith's abundant charm is squandered by making him play second fiddle to a bunch of dumb machines that look like rejected maquettes from a "Star Wars" brainstorming session. He's not asked to be much more than a cinematic Carol Merrill here, looking glamorous while displaying a screen full of high-tech gadgets.

In fairness, though, he's not the only one. Loveless's henchwomen are also played by a quartet of wooden supermodels (Frederique Van Der Wal, Bai Ling, Musetta Vander and Sofia Eng). What Hayek is doing here I've already forgotten. Oh yeah, she's trying to rescue her scientist father from Loveless, who has kidnapped the world's brains to design his arachnoid kill-bot.

What worked about the campy old television show was that, despite its unbelievable gadgetry, it still had one foot (all right, maybe only a toe) firmly planted in historical reality. "WWW" is so far-fetched (a black secret agent in the racist deep South of the 1860s?) and implausibly futuristic (flying saw blades that act like heat-seeking missiles?) that it has to work twice as hard to make the fanciful premise work.

West's mission against Loveless is explained as a vendetta dating from the Civil War, when the nefarious Louisianan slaughtered our hero's parents in a settlement of freed slaves. As a child, West of course managed to escape on foot to Utah, where he was raised by wolves, I mean Indians.

Give it a rest.

Either make the whole dang thing one big, over-the-top cartoon (forgetting race and melodrama and feeble attempts at sense) or lose some of the bad puns ("No more Mr. Knife Guy"), stupid anachronisms like thong underwear and the expression "butt-ugly," and jokes about "Air Gordon" and wheelchair access.

Wasn't "The Avengers" punishment enough?

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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