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Wild Wild West(1999)
The two best hired guns in the West must save President Grant from the clutches of a 19th century inventor-villain.
For more about Wild Wild West and the Wild Wild West Blu-ray release, see Wild Wild West Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on June 17, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 2.0 out of 5.
Starring: Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek, M. Emmet Walsh, Ted Levine
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
» See full cast & crew
Wild Wild West Blu-ray Review
Big Budget Quirk Fest
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, June 17, 2011
Winner of five Razzie Awards, including worst picture, worst script and worst director, Wild Wild West hasn't improved with age. Based loosely (very loosely) on a classic TV series that ran from 1965 through 1969, the film cost a fortune and was hyped by Warner for months with a full-court press before debuting for the July 4th weekend in 1999, which had historically been lucky for star Will Smith. The film opened big, but no one liked it. Its eventual domestic take was $114 million ($220 million worldwide), which isn't as good as it sounds for a film whose production costs ran between $150 and $180 million, depending on who you ask.
What went wrong? Two words: Barry Sonnenfeld. The director's eccentric sensibility had been a good match for The Addams Family films, and it meshed happily with Scott Frank's interpretation of Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty. With Men in Black, the director had a strong script and the protective oversight of the ultimate populist entertainer, Steven Spielberg. But when Will Smith brought his favorite director into Wild Wild West, he didn't seem to realize that not all material is right for every director. Director and star wanted to make a comedy, which the original Wild Wild West wasn't (though it had humorous moments) - and Sonnenfeld's idea of humor is so off-beat that test audiences didn't know when they were supposed to laugh. It's never a good sign when a movie intended as a comedy needs to have more jokes added so viewers know that hey, nudge, nudge, this is funny stuff.
In 1869, Army Capt. James West (Smith) is investigating the disappearance of leading scientists, when he isn't being distracted by beautiful women like Belle (Garcelle Beauvais). Unbeknownst to West, a U.S. Marshall named Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) is investigating the same case. Both of them report directly to President Ulysses S. Grant (also played by Kline), who directs them to work together, even though they're temperamentally incompatible, West being a man of action and Gordon an intellectual and strategist. President Grant puts at their disposal a luxurious train called "The Wanderer", which Gordon, an ingenious inventor in his own right, outfits with fabulous gadgets. Then the President leaves for Utah to drive the Golden Spike that symbolically opened the First Transcontinental Railroad. (History buffs and Stanford graduates may object that Leland Stanford, not Grant, drove the Golden Spike, but who cares?)
The man collecting the scientists is Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a staunch supporter of the Confederacy believed to have died in the Civil War. Loveless was indeed so badly wounded that only the upper half of his body remains, leaving him obsessed with revenge upon the Union. Assisted by a former Confederate general, "Bloodbath" McGrath (Ted Levine), and his troops, plus a quartet of comely female assistants - Amazonia (Frederique Van Der Wal), Munitia (Musetta Vander), Miss Lippenrieder (Sofia Eng) and Miss East (Bai Ling) - Loveless has forced the kidnapped scientists to design and build the ultimate weapon: an eighty-foot tall mechanical tarantula that is the world's largest tank. Armed with cannons, flame throwers and eight crushing legs, it can destroy a city in minutes. Loveless plans to use his weapon to force President Grant to surrender the United States so that he can dismember it and return the pieces to the original colonizers in Great Britan, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Mexico (for a handsome price, naturally).
The original TV show could have told this story in 47 minutes (minus the "origin" story of West and Gordon meeting each other and the time-consuming trip to Washington to consult the President). The show, which starred a dapper Robert Conrad as West and a courtly Ross Martin as Gordon, had many preposterous elements, especially with its gadgets, most of them scientifically impossible for the 19th Century (or even the 20th). But it always told taut stories, keeping the audience wondering what would happen next and respecting the four-act television format in which the first three ended with a cliffhanger before cutting to commercial. Indeed, by fading each cliffhanger to an antique drawing in the style of the title sequence, the show made the cliffhangers more dramatic (and fun).
No such narrative drive animates Sonnenfeld's creation, even though the credits list a total of six writers. Sonnenfeld is more interested in the kinky details of a scene than in where it's driving the plot. Like one of Gordon's contraptions that isn't quite perfected, the film loses steam almost immediately. Of the many departures from its source material, this was by far the most damaging.
Take General "Bloodbath" McGrath, who earned his monicker for slaughtering an entire village of emancipated slaves, including women and children, and who West has been pursuing for years. There ought to be something fierce, monstrous and intimidating about him, and Ted Levine is certainly capable of playing those qualities (as he did in The Silence of the Lambs). But Sonnenfeld uses him as a grotesque, focusing almost every shot of the general on the left ear deafened by cannon fire for which he now needs an ear trumpet: a literal ear trumpet embedded in the general's head. In one scene, the general drains the trumpet of a disgusting mixture of pus and wax. In another, an entire line-up of whores recoils as the general inspects them for a possible selection. When the general finally falls, a little dog runs up to him so that Sonnenfeld can stage a tableau mimicking the famous RCA "his master's voice" ad, and one gets the feeling that the entire character was an hour-long setup for this single gag. In Wild Wild West, gags are the substitute for plot.
The alert reader will have noticed that there's no mention of Salma Hayek or her character, Rita Escobar, in the plot summary above. That's because Rita serves no purpose in the story. She appears at Loveless' New Orleans "coming out" party and asks West and Gordon for help locating her father, one of the missing scientists. For the rest of the film, she flashes her charms at whomever she has to, tags along when she's not supposed to, routinely is put in jeopardy and generally does nothing. She doesn't even supply a motivation for the heros, who do what they do to save their president and country. A director who cared about the story would have told his fleet of writers to give Rita something to do or drop her, but Sonnenfeld would rather stage kinky gags, like putting Rita in a cage in Loveless' bedroom (presumably for some mechanically-assisted sex act) or having her unwittingly flash her rear end when she has to don West's long johns on The Wanderer (don't worry; I've included a screenshot). Of course, the ultimate joke is on West and Gordon, but you'll have to see the movie to find out why.
Perhaps the best demonstration of the film's indifference to its own plot is a scene added after test screenings made the director decide that he needed more "comedy". At the New Orleans party, West offends the guests and they form a lynch mob, hoisting him onto a wagon under a tree with a noose dangling in front of him. As a young man before the Civil War, West had escaped from slavery; so this is obviously funny stuff, right? But then Will Smith starts doing a standup routine to distract the crowd so that Gordon can effect a rescue. I say that it's "Will Smith" doing standup, because at this point he's ceased playing James West, a character who, if one were true to the background related elsewhere in the film, would betray at least some emotion over this experience. But Sonnenfeld doesn't care about any of this. He just makes sure that the noose remains prominently in the frame. Who cares about character or the fact that Loveless is getting away when there's an opportunity for laughs about lynching?
Sonnenfeld's eccentricities worked for him in Men in Black, because that film's plot was largely about Smith's "J" encountering one bizarre phenomenon after another. But Wild Wild West needed a director who could make a swashbuckling adventure story, taking the fantastical elements in stride, as the TV show always managed to do. Sonnenfeld claims in his commentary that he loved the show growing up, but his memory seems to have failed him. Maybe he confused it with The Munsters.
Wild Wild West Blu-ray, Video Quality
Whatever one thinks of the film, there's nothing to fault in the AVC-encoded presentation on Warner's Blu-ray. The image is crisp and sharply detailed, except in occasional scenes that suffer from the limitations of what was then possible in CGI animation and compositing. Most of these scenes involve Loveless' giant tarantula; today, with far greater computing power and advances in software, they'd have been rendered in more detail. Practical sets like the Wanderer and the New Orleans ballroom that have been lavishly designed and stuffed with elaborate props and costumes can be appreciated in all their baroque detail. Black levels are excellent, which is essential for scenes like West's opening night-time encounter with Loveless' men and the scenes in the White House "situation room" with numerous men in dark coats. Colors are rich but not overly saturated, and, except for the blue sky, the palette favors earth tones, especially the reddish browns of the Utah landscape. (The cinematographer was Michael Ballhaus, with substantial contributions from Bill Pope, who shot for the second unit.) When West and Gordon are forced to plunge into a pit of mud to evade one of Dr. Loveless' devices, the mud has a most unusual color. I remember that one reviewer at the time suggested that Sonnenfeld deliberately intended the color to suggest a giant vat of . . . oh, never mind. Whatever the intent, the color is accurately represented on the Blu-ray.
Hardly any grain is noticeable, but this does not appear to be the result of grain reduction or other post-processing. By 1999, visible grain had largely been tamed, especially in a film with so many visual effects shots.
Wild Wild West Blu-ray, Audio Quality
From its opening scene, in which a decapitating, Frisbee-like metal disc goes whizzing around the surround field, the soundtrack of Wild Wild West provides a workout for your surrounds and, later, your sub, and the DTS lossless track provides a full presentation. Gunfire, explosions and the sound of an eighty-foot-tall mechanical tarantula stomping across the desert have appropriate impact, and the various gadgets created by both Gordon and the evil Dr. Loveless have appropriately distinctive sounds associated with them. Dialogue is clear and generally centered, although occasional spoken words echo into the surrounds. This is a contemporary big-budget track, engineered for "gee, whiz!" reaction, the perfect complement to a film that cares more about the details than the story. Elmer Bernstein's score is nicely represented, but it's a shame it isn't better. The man who gave The Magnificent Seven their evocative theme seemed to have forgotten how to score a Western, and someone made the ill-fated decision to withhold the instantly recognizable title music from the original TV show until late in the movie.
Wild Wild West Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Wild Wild West Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
If you like Wild Wild West, this Blu-ray won't disappoint you. If you've never seen it before and want to judge for yourself, the disc will give the film a fair shot, but I recommend renting first. If, like me, you remember being grossly disappointed when this oversold tentpole finally unspooled in theaters, then save your money. You were right the first time.
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