Principal Cast : Will Smith, Kevin Klein, Salma Hayek, Kenneth Branagh, Ted Levine, M Emmet Walsh, Frederique Van Der Wal, Musetta Vander, Bai Ling, Sofia Eng, Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon, Rodney A Grant, Ian Abercrombie.
Synopsis: The two best special agents in the Wild West must save President Grant from the clutches of a diabolical, wheelchair-bound, steampunk-savvy, Confederate scientist bent on revenge for losing the Civil War.
As the late ’90s embraced the dawn of a new millennium, cinema-goers were treated to an array of imaginative and inventive stories. In this milieu, Wild Wild West had the audacity to bring together the Wild West and the fantastical world of steampunk, in a unique mashup that piqued the interest of many. But what could have been an ingenious blend of genres soon morphed into an incoherent disaster, making this film one of the most notorious missteps in cinematic history.
Wild Wild West is a cinematic adventure that attempts to blend the Wild West with steampunk in a madcap mix of genres. Starring the ever-charismatic Will Smith as James West, a wisecracking government agent, the film takes audiences on a rollercoaster ride through a world of bizarre inventions and absurd plot twists. Joining him is Kevin Kline, who plays Artemus Gordon, a master of disguise and inventor, providing a touch of sanity in the midst of the madness. The acclaimed Kenneth Branagh takes on the role of the film’s villain, Dr. Arliss Loveless, whose motivations and over-the-top antics are as incomprehensible as they are entertaining. As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that this unlikely trio must band together to thwart Loveless’s plans involving a giant mechanical spider and prevent a catastrophe of epic proportions. Amidst the chaos, the film introduces a cast of characters, some amusing, some enigmatic, and others entirely forgettable, in a narrative that struggles to find its footing, making Wild Wild West a peculiar and often bewildering cinematic experience.
Before we dissect the film’s many issues, it is essential to discuss the presence of Will Smith in the late ’90s. At the time, Smith was at the peak of his career, having transitioned seamlessly from a rap sensation to a beloved sitcom star (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), and ultimately a bona fide Hollywood A-lister. His charisma and box office draw were undeniable. However, it was this ubiquity that added to the strange, off-kilter tone of Wild Wild West. Smith was everywhere, and his involvement in the film almost overshadowed its unique concept. Smith’s portrayal of James West, a wisecracking government agent, was, to put it mildly, inconsistent with the film’s supposed Western setting. The screenplay veered towards turning this character into a caricature of Smith’s own on-screen persona, replete with his signature one-liners and cocky swagger. While this might have worked in a different context, it felt alien in the Wild West. The character of West was lost somewhere between the blend of steampunk and the Western frontier, leaving audiences perplexed and disconnected. I guess the film was intended as a vehicle to sell CD sales for the accompanying title track, by Smith, and this cynicism – a ploy that worked so well on the Smith-Sonnenfeld team-up of Men In Black a year or so prior – leads a dour, mismatched comedic whimsy that never quite works.
In the midst of this chaos, Kevin Kline emerged as a welcome beacon of consistency. His portrayal of Artemus Gordon, a master of disguise and inventor, provided a much-needed anchor in a film that seemed determined to spin out of control. Kline’s performance was solid and occasionally elevated the film’s more absurd moments with his impeccable comedic timing and dry wit. Gordon’s character, while occasionally suffering from some tonal inconsistencies, at least felt like it belonged in the Steampunk-meets-Wild West universe the film attempted to create. His chemistry with Smith’s West, while at times comically discordant, formed one of the few enjoyable aspects of Wild Wild West. Then we have Kenneth Branagh, a celebrated actor and director, who took on the role of the film’s antagonist, Dr. Arliss Loveless. One would have expected an actor of Branagh’s calibre to bring depth and nuance to the character, but what we witnessed was far from that. Instead, we were subjected to an absurd caricature of a villain, complete with a Southern accent and an unnecessarily elaborate contraption to move him about. Branagh’s performance as Loveless was so over-the-top that it felt like it belonged in a different film altogether. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with playing a larger-than-life villain, it should be done with a touch of finesse and a hint of subtlety. Branagh, however, embraced the chaos with open arms, which only added to the film’s disjointed tone.
However, the heart of the matter of things going so badly wrong is the film’s convoluted and, frankly, incomprehensible plot. Wild Wild West starts with a promising concept – a secret agent duo in a steampunk-infused Wild West setting, working to prevent a mad scientist’s plans for destruction. However, what could have been a straightforward adventure quickly turned into a tangled mess of subplots, bizarre inventions, and a seemingly random assortment of characters. The story’s primary antagonist, Dr. Loveless, possesses a bizarre scheme involving a giant mechanical spider. It’s never entirely clear why he wants to use this contraption to overthrow the United States government, and his motivations remain shrouded in obscurity throughout the film. This lack of a clear, compelling villainous motive is a fundamental flaw that undermines the narrative’s coherence. Furthermore, the film introduces a mysterious secret society, which seems to serve as a distraction from the primary plot rather than enhancing it. This society’s role in the narrative remains unclear, leaving viewers scratching their heads in bewilderment. The film’s characters are, for the most part, an inscrutable collection of oddities. The portrayal of women in Wild Wild West is particularly problematic. While we’re introduced to Rita Escobar, a talented inventor and the daughter of one of Loveless’s victims, her character is disappointingly underdeveloped. She appears sporadically, almost as an afterthought, and is relegated to a typical damsel-in-distress role. Additionally, the film introduces a group of women who serve as Loveless’s henchwomen, the Loveless Lovelies. These characters, rather than adding depth or substance to the story, are reduced to eye candy, and their presence feels more like a tasteless attempt at humour than a meaningful contribution to the plot.
One of the most significant issues with Wild Wild West is its tonal inconsistency. The film careens from slapstick comedy to moments of intense action and even delves into dark, violent themes. These tonal shifts occur so abruptly that they disrupt any sense of narrative flow. The film seems unable to decide whether it wants to be a light-hearted comedy or a gritty action-adventure, leaving the audience feeling disoriented and disconnected from the story. Another aspect of Wild Wild West that contributes to its downfall is the often cringe-worthy and poorly written dialogue. The film is filled with awkward one-liners and forced humour that, instead of eliciting genuine laughter, elicit groans and eye-rolls. The script’s attempt at wit often falls flat, further contributing to the film’s tonal inconsistency. For a film set in a steampunk-inspired world, one would expect impressive visual effects and imaginative gadgets. While Wild Wild West does offer some visually captivating moments, especially with its steam-powered inventions, it all leads up to the infamous giant mechanical spider. Loveless’s weapon of mass destruction is undoubtedly impressive from a visual standpoint, but its absurdity and impracticality beggar belief. The presence of the mechanical spider serves as a symbol of the film’s descent into excess and absurdity.
Wild Wild West will always be remembered not as a triumph of creativity or storytelling, but as a bewildering concoction of misguided ideas and wasted potential. This film serves as a cautionary tale, demonstrating the perils of disjointed storytelling, tonal inconsistency, and the blurring of genres without a clear vision. While it might be easy to dismiss the film as a mere misstep in the careers of its talented cast and crew, it is a reminder of the importance of cohesive storytelling, well-defined characters, and a clear sense of purpose in filmmaking. The film’s legacy serves as a testament to the idea that, in the world of cinema, even the brightest stars can find themselves lost in the wilderness of bad decisions and ill-conceived projects. This whole experience should serve as a reminder that, in the vast landscape of film, there are peaks and valleys, and not every project can reach the heights of greatness. Wild Wild West remains a curiosity, an oddity, and a reminder of the pitfalls that filmmakers must navigate in their quest to entertain and enlighten. And while it may not be remembered as a masterpiece, it has left an indelible mark on the world of film, a mark that we cannot help but examine and discuss, even as we shake our heads in bemusement at its ruin.