(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.