Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Painful to watch: The 1999 Wild, Wild West

(Another repost, from my own blog in 2019)

The 1999 big-screen reboot of Wild, Wild, West should have been a blast. We have a talented crew of actors, special effects are light years beyond what was possible in 1960s TV, and weird westerns are fairly popular. I see no reason the steampunk Western premise couldn’t have been executed to win over both fans of the show and people who’d never heard of it.

Instead it sucked. It’s a failure all the way around.

In this incarnation, Will Smith is Jim West, a black Union officer hunting down the Confederate commander who destroyed West’s home town, killing his parents in the process. Kevin Kline is Artemus Gordon, a U.S. Marshall investigating the disappearance of several brilliant scientists. Their separate missions turn out to have a common link: Arliss Loveless, a Confederate die-hard who lost his legs in the Civil War. As a bitter disability stereotype, he wants revenge; the film’s one good idea is that he’s not going to destroy the United States physically but by dividing up the territory among the former European colonial nations.

Like the Get Smart theatrical reboot, this suffers from trying to force the original series into a standard movie formula — actually, two stock formulae. First we have the Buddy Cop Comedy: can Jim and Artie put aside their personality clashes and different approaches to the job to fight evil? Then we have the summer F/X-heavy blockbuster, which is why Loveless’ ultimate threat is a giant spider mecha. Neither captures the strengths of the original series.

The thing about the original Wild, Wild, West was that while it had plenty of comedy relief, it took its premise seriously. When Dr. Loveless plots to drive the country into homicidal mania by releasing hallucinogens into the water (Night of the Deadly Spring), or the Falcon plans to demonstrate a super-cannon by blowing up Denver (Night of the Falcon), West, Gordon and the show itself treat the threat as completely real. The film is all about the jokes. Jim and Artie clowning around. Artie’s ridiculous steampunk gadgets. Even at the climax, when Jim has to defeat Loveless’ cyborgs in time to disable the spider, it’s played for laughs.

Perhaps the lack of seriousness explains why the giant spider doesn’t work either. The TV series often conveyed the sense that we were watching something utterly incredible — man-made earthquakes, difference engines, a 19th century flamethrowing tank. The movie can’t make the effort: it’s a big giant robot just like we’ve seen in other SF movies, no need to get excited over it.

Then there’s Kenneth Branagh’s Loveless. Branagh is an amazing actor but he doesn’t appear to put any effort into Loveless. Michael Dunn’s Loveless was a passionate, intense schemer, full of rage at the world; Branagh’s Loveless substitutes a thick Southern accent for a personality. In a cringeworthy scene, when Loveless flings racist insults at West, the officer fires back with disability insults. Sorry, that is not funny, nor is it appropriate for the hero, any more than it’s acceptable to throw racist slurs at a black villain.

As the film’s damsel in distress, Salma Hayek’s Rita is true to the original series in that she’s purely decorative. The series’ sexism was its biggest weakness, though it still managed a few memorable roles; Agnes Moorehead copped an Emmy for her role as a conniving, power-hungry matchmaker in Night of the Vicious Valentine. By 1999, it shouldn’t be radical to make the woman in an action film more than just sexy (though as I’ve mentioned before, it often is). I kept waiting for the film to reveal her character had scientific genius, a hidden talent (“My father was a locksmith, I can get us into the control room in time!”) or something … but nope.

Wild, Wild West is a textbook example of how not to reboot an old property. It’s unfunny, unexciting and just plain bad.



  1. conrad1970

    The list of bad reboots from Hollywood just goes on and on
    Charlie’s Angels
    Get Smart
    Man from U.N.C.L.E.
    Starkly and Hutch
    To name just a few, and tv is no better.
    It’s about time they give it up and come up with original ideas.

  2. Ecron Muss

    Wasn’t the mechanical spider a holdover that producer Jon Peters had previously insisted was to be part of the unmade Superman: Flyby film?

    What was so important about a mechanical spider, that it had to be shoehorned into a movie, any movie?

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    I actually like The Man From UNCLE. Felt more like a classic spy film than anything from the James Bond world, since Goldeneye.

    The Wild, Wild West was a tremendous show, with great writing, great character actors, charismatic leads and the perfect premise: secret agents in the Old West, fighting super-criminals. The film was yet another attempt to trade on a popular name, but without bringing any of it to life. Let’s start with the casting. A black secret agent. Yeah, that in inconspicuous, in the 1870s/80s, especially dandied up, like he is. Of course, the reason for that is that the cast Slapper, himself, Will Smith. Look, Barry, he was fine in Men in Black; but, this ain’t that. Jim West is supposed to be a veteran Union officer, a top pistolero and tough fighter. He’s not a comic and doesn’t do dance numbers. You don’t recast Robert Conrad with The Fresh Prince, I don’t care how high his Q Rating is. It doesn’t work for this premise. Kline could have done this straight, but no one wanted to do it.

    If you wanted to recast Loveless, the person to do it with was David Rappaport; but, sadly, he took his own life in 1990. In later years, Peter Dinklage could have done wonders with the role. Loveless is a giant, in intellect and personality, just not physical stature (hence, Voltaire). What worked with Michael Dunn was that he used every facet of his personality and talents. he was intelligent and cultured and they included his singing, making it an affectation of Loveless and his aid, Antoinette, played by Dunn’s cabaret singing partner, Phoebe Dorin).

    The tv series tried to play it for laughs, with the reunion movie, with Paul Williams as the son of Loveless and the mime duo of Shields and Yarnell. It was awful.

    Robert Conrad was a legit tough guy with charm and a pretty face. He was a believable super spy. Ross Martin was a character actor par excellence and Artemus Gordon let him do character bits, via his disguises. He also got to create the gadgets; but, like classic Jules Verne, they were always within the realm of possibility. Martin was a tremendous actor, capable of doing comedy and drama, deliver Shakespearian dialogue and a Gabby Hayes pastiche. If you have eve seen his Columbo episode, as an art expert who commits murder to steal a collection, you know what I mean (he was also a decent Charlie Chan, aside from the Yellow Face problem). Kline is capable of that (watch him in Cry Freedom, to see his acting chops), but he had nothing to work with. This was Jon Peters’ demented ideas messing with a script and Sonnenfeld trying to turn this into Men In Black, for lack of any other ideas.

    The Adventures of Brisco County Jr was the closest thing to the original.

    1. Oh, Kline could definitely have done it. I’m a big fan of his, one reason I was so disappointed.
      Michael Dunn was amazing. He’s also good in Goodnight My Love, as a PI partnered with Richard Boone. Peter Dinklage would have been my pick.
      I actually enjoyed the first TV movie sequel, though not up to the original.
      As I never caught Man From Uncle I have no opinion. I did enjoy TV’s Return of the Man From UNCLE way back when.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        The basic premise of tv episode of The Man From UNCLE is that UNCLE agents Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin are tasked with a mission that usually requires the involvement of some civilian, who gets pulled into this weird world of spies and gadgets. The first season was played straight, as a spy action-drama., with the occasional lighter moment. It was done in black & white. Some really great stuff in there, including an episode (“The Project Strigas Affair”), with Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. Season 2 began the color episodes and the tone was lighter, but the plots still serious. The 3rd season tipped the balance squarely into comedy and it became more of a campy spoof. Season 4 they tried to rein it back in; but, it was too late and the audience had abandoned it. They put out several movies, with 2 episodes edited together and additional footage, that were quite successful. I personally prefer the first season; but, the second has many good episodes. I haven’t seen much of the 4th; but, the 3rd is where it went wrong.

        The Return of the Man From UNCLE pretty well captured the spirit of things, though probably more in keeping with the second season, than the first. It ticked me off that they created a new UNCLE Special pistol; but, didn’t use it until the third act and , even then, barely showed the thing. The original was as big a part of the show as the characters, and was copied by everyone (especially in Japan, where it turns up in things like Mighty Jack, a spy series, and even in episodes of Speed Racer, in the hands of crooks and spies).. The Transformers Megatron toy was based on the original pistol.

        I thought Guy Ritchie did a decent job with it, catching the flavor and also the time period. He even teased the Special in a commando raid, where Ilya is carrying something quite like it. The film ends with Waverly recruiting the two agents for this new organization, after they have been rivals, chasing down ex-Nazis.

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