Coming two years after Will Smith and Barry Sonnedfeld’s still pretty great Men In Black, Wild Wild West probably seemed like a safe bet. It’s a similar enough movie. Will Smith plays a hotshot hero alongside a disapproving sidekick in a weird and zany world. But instead of being a novice, Will Smith’s Jim West is a seasoned James Bond type. And instead of going up against a grumpy Tommy Lee Jones, he deals with a beta-male scientist guy played by Kevin Kline. And instead of crazy alien nonsense, we get a lot of crazy steampunk nonsense. Just on a theoretical level, these aren’t the worst trades possible.
According to the Internet, Wild Wild West made money but not as much money as everyone hoped. It certainly didn’t get any of my money until yesterday. I’m not sure why I skipped the film’s 1999 release, exactly. I like Sonnenfeld a lot. I like Will Smith a lot. I like Kevin Kline a lot. But I just failed to give a shit. It could have been the stupidity of that giant spider.
Fifteen years later, I have to admit that I sort of like the film. It’s small and plays more like a Will Smith TV show than any kind of followup to Men in Black, but it’s not without its charms. It also has this shot:
The film is all about how Jim West and Artemus Gordon must team up to stop Ted Levin’s Bloodbath McGrath and Kenneth Branagh’s Dr. Arliss Loveless from killing President Ulysses S. Grant and taking over the entire country with the aid of a giant mechanical spider. Also, Salma Hayek pops in to generally screw things up and have boobs (and in one scene - a butt).
Despite all the action and out of time technology on display, Wild Wild West is primarily a comedy. And as a comedy, it both succeeds and fails. When it’s Will Smith’s turn to make funny quips - and he makes so many quips in this film - they are nowhere near the cleverness found in Men in Black. Most of them deserve to be followed up with crickets on the soundtrack. He has his Big Willy charm, but for the most part the movie abandons him to look like someone who just thinks he’s cool.
So it doesn’t really work very well as a Will Smith vehicle. As a Kevin Kline joint, however… well it’s still not very good. But how often do you get to see this much silly Kevin Kline in a movie? Between the two leads, Artemus Gordon has a lot more moments that work, and even though the film kind of sees him as the undesirable nerd next to Will Smith’s sex magnet, he ends up being the far more likable character.
But the best this movie has to offer comes from Kenneth Branagh’s villain, Dr. Loveless. Everything about this guy is right on. He has no legs and gets around on a steam-powered mechanical wheelchair. His accent is delightfully goofy. He has a really stupid and unnecessary obsession with spiders for some reason. And his facial hair is absurd enough to make Wes Bentley cry. Every scene with Branagh is a dumb delight.
More than anything, what strikes me most about Wild Wild West is how dirty it is. Along with that weird genital shot posted above, the film has a number of sexual innuendo jokes that cross the line into being just plain perverse. We get lots of gay jokes, boner jokes, fucking jokes, all delivered with the subtlety of overeager community theater. It’s kind of fucked up but I approve!