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WILD WILD WEST

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek
Director:  Barry Sonnenfeld
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  105 Minutes
Release Date:  November 30, 1999

Film **

Wild Wild West features a promising opening fifteen minutes, and a rather disappointing final fifteen.  The rest of the film literally and figuratively falls somewhere in between.

I’m guessing this movie would be just about perfect for kids, maybe from 9 to 13 or so.  Looking back, I think I would have loved this film at that age.  As an adult, though, there were just a few too many flaws I couldn’t overlook.

There are many favorable aspects of the picture, though, so I would like to start with those:  Will Smith as Jim West and Kevin Kline as Artemus Gordon are both very good.  They bring the right amount of enthusiasm and energy to their roles.  And though their relationship is the tried and true odd couple formula, it works for the most part thanks to their chemistry, and the simple notion that West takes pride in being a man of action in his work, while Gordon thinks it better to use mind over matter.

The special effects, including the many wacky inventions of Gordon, are a real plus, and generally very clever.  These contraptions add a lot to the picture’s sense of fun and style, giving it an almost recklessly relished sense of logical and physical abandonment.  I found it rather easy to switch off my mind and go with the flow for most of these sequences.

The action scenes are well crafted.  The look of the movie is also terrific, taking Old West motifs and integrating them with a new polished chrome style.  It’s an appealing kind of Disney World version of the West…a setting of pure fantasy.

So where does the picture go wrong?  A rather lame villain, for one, which is always detrimental to this kind of film.  Kenneth Branagh is one of my favorite actors, but as Loveless, he is a total waste.  His character is so poorly drawn and thought out that I suppose his only means of trying to rescue it was to be as goofy as possible in his leering and pontificating.  The hair and make-up was a bit much, and only served to remind that nothing much was going on underneath.

Because the villain is weak, so then is the plot.  With an antagonist that makes a connection to the audience, like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, you can have a silly storyline because fans will still get into the spirit of the good guy versus bad guy formula.  With a poor villain, it’s hard to care at all, and a silly plot then just becomes an annoyance.  How silly is it?  A disgruntled, crippled ex-Confederate plans to take over America and give huge chunks of it away to foreign countries. 

Then on top of being silly, it becomes a plot full of holes.  West and Gordon are supposed to be rescuing a group of top scientists that were kidnapped by Loveless.  Except for one at the beginning and one at the end, why aren’t these guys ever seen?  It gives a rather odd meaning to the term “faceless victims”.  Or how about the rather amazing tank that Loveless demonstrates early on in the film, meant to be an ultimate instrument of death?  Abandoned, naturally, in favor of the big spider.

There are other complaints:  the rather painful bits of racial banter that occur, mostly in the form of derogatory slurs uttered by Loveless and directed at West.  Naturally, these are supposed to emphasize what a terrible man is Loveless, but were they really necessary?  It’s ironic to think that only the racial epithets in the script required Jim West to be portrayed by an African American actor.

Finally, when the picture has a chance to redeem itself with a strong stretch run, it unfortunately becomes all the more ridiculous.  True, the giant metal tarantula is cool, but that’s about it.  When you create a climax whereby a hero is literally left hanging by his fingers over the side of a cliff, then the film simply proceeds to his next scene with no resolution or explanation, it’s simply weak storytelling, and an even weaker sense of direction.  Barry Sonnenfeld has seen better days.

Video ****

Absolutely no complaints in this department…Warner, as always, delivers a terrific anamorphic transfer to DVD.  The picture quality is amazing throughout, with a wide array of perfectly rendered colors, and sharp, crisp images.  I noticed no softness, bleeding, or grain.  Many indoor scenes contain a remarkable amount of detail, and none of it is lost or compromised on this disc.

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is dynamic and energetic, with many lively scenes including the rampaging robot spider making good use of all channels, with smooth crossovers, good balance, and plenty of dynamics.  The subwoofer adds a bit to the action scenes, particularly the explosions and gunplay. 

Features ***1/2

The disc includes the trailer, a behind the scenes documentary, a commentary track with Sonnenfeld, a stills gallery, some music videos, and cast and crew info, along with some extras for your DVD ROM.

Summary:

Wild Wild West has enough quality ingredients to succeed, but it doesn’t—time to blame the cook.  The disc is worth a look thanks to the fun performances of Smith and Kline, and a terrific visual style captured perfectly on a quality DVD transfer…just don’t be surprised if you feel like heading back east by the time it’s over.