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IN SHORT: The less you remember the television show, the better off you are.
The Wild Wild West television series was created by writer Gilbert Ralston from an idea by CBS Television exec Michael Garrison, though the Warner Bros. studio and the producers of this movie are fighting Ralston's - now his estate's - claim in court. Trial starts in October. It starred Robert Conrad and the late Ross Martin as US Secret Service Agents Jim West and Artemus Gordon, and Michael Dunn as archvillain Dr. Miguelito Loveless. That's the last Cranky'll say of it, but I will repeat the usual spiel about teevee show adaptations. 1) Bigger is not better. 2) A modern spin on a three decades old concept doesn't yield a hipper story. 3) If you're old enough to remember a teevee show with fondness, you probably should stay the hell out of the movie theater. Now that that's off my chest . . .
The pre-release buzz on Wild Wild West was so negative, Cranky was expecting another The Avengers. Fact is, the only people who were bitching mightily as we walked out of the screening were those folk who, like Cranky, remember the television show fondly (see point 3 above). Cranky wasn't unhappy with director Barry Sonnenfeld's creation but points 1 and 2 apply mightily. This Wild Wild West is what, conceptually, it was supposed to be; James Bond in the Old West. That means Secret Agents and technologically advanced gadgets, and a super-villain out to rule the world, or, in this case a goodly chunk of post Civil War America. This film, unfortunately, was pieced together by four scriptwriters working off a story by another pair. To paraphrase an old expression, too many cooks sour, but not spoil, the broth.
Like last year's hideous The Avengers, Wild Wild West takes place a short time before the television series. In that time frame, we get to see how Jim West (Will Smith) and Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) meet up, team up, and save the world. Like The Avengers, the good guys don't like each other and don't particularly want to work together. Unlike The Avengers, the megawatt personalities of Smith and Kline save the day. Each man, with their own agendas and assignments to complete, is tracking "Bloodbath" McGrath (Ted Levine), a Confederate General with a surgically implanted hearing trumpet in the side of his head who is involved in some kind of weapons smuggling scheme. Gordon, first seen in drag, disguised as a local whore, is tracking the weapons. West, first seen butt nekkid in a water tower getting a piece, is seeking revenge for the McGrath led "Massacre at New Liberty" at which hundreds of freed slaves, including his parents, were murdered.
But the real bad guy behind it all is Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a crippled Confederate, who wants to return the US of A to its real founding fathers -- Spain, France and Great Britain. Once West and Gordon are teamed by President Grant (also Kline) the pair trade insults about their fighting styles and joust over who will land the fair Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek), whom they have rescued from the clutches of the evil Doctor. Escobar is an entertainer searching for her father, a world class hydraulics engineer and one of many scientists kidnapped by Loveless for some evil purpose. Even at this point, about halfway through the film, everything is holding together. Gordon disavows guns. West swears he'll never wear a dress. You know what that means . . .
The problem is that most of the dialog in Wild Wild West feels more like the year 1999 than 1869. Smith does his Fresh Prince slash smart mouth routine, just as amusing as it was on teevee or in his last monster flick Men In Black, also directed by Sonnenfeld. Whether shmoozing a confederate crowd as they prepare to lynch him, or trading double entendre insults with Loveless, Smith is doing the Smith we know. Loveless has no body from the waist down, yielding a vast field of cripple jokes to plough through and West, if you haven't caught on, is a black man in the South in post Slavery America, so every double entendre for "colored" (short of the "N" word) gets invoked. The verbal battle between West and Gordon consists of jokes pertaining to buttocks and breasts, with saucier language. It's amusing, but runs out of steam quickly.
Luckily, we've still got Salma Hayek parading around in her underwear and high tech Erector set based technological monsters to fill the screen. Fantasy is a good thing. As the mechanical marvels get bigger and bigger, they start with a nitro-powered bicycle and top off with an 80 foot tall mechanical spider, the actors in their roles get smaller and smaller. When Good finally defeats Evil, in the manner that all "comic book style" movies must end, no one in the audience cheered. There was some assorted hissing, probably coming from the old folks section. Cranky, you should know, was sitting next to 6 kidlets, none of whom were enthralled enough to hold their water. The back end of the movie relies so heavily on gimmicks that, losing track of it for even the ten seconds it took for kidlet and mom to pass by yielded much confusion on my part.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Wild Wild West, he would have paid...
Wild Wild West is just an average popcorn flick and this rating is dateflick level.
28 Weeks Later
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