release date: june 30th, 1999
production budget: $150-180 million
u.s. gross: $113.8 million
foreign: $108.3 million
in peter bart’s resourceful and entertaining book the gross, which chronicles hollywood’s disastrous summer of 1998–the summer that brought us armageddon, deep impact, and godzilla, all the major studios claimed to have learnt valuable lessons (as they do every summer). the book ends with the realizations that by throwing money at big budget movies does not necessarily guarantee profits, and that a decent screenplay is the spine that will hold up a tentpole movie. of course, big budget and summer blockbusters are like riggs and murtaugh. a year after the hastily put together lethal weapon 4 and the expensive flop the avengers (1998), warner bros.’ big summer movie is the even more expensive wild wild west.
based on the 60s tv western, it’s easy to see why the movie adaptation looked appetizing to a major studio in need of a hit. director barry sonnenfeld had just directed men in black, which stars will smith. smith also seemed to own the independence day weekend after both men in black and independence day became huge hits. while i have never seen the original tv show, it’s described as a mixture of scifi, spy, and comedy, elements that seemed perfect for a summer blockbuster. there is the partnership of smith’s jim west and kevin kline’s artemus gordon that’s reminiscent of riggs and murtaugh from the lethal weapon series, which, outside of the dc comics licenses, made a fortune for warner bros. on paper, it almost looks like a sure bet, even if a few things go wrong.
and yet, everything did go wrong. unlike mel gibson and danny glover, there is no chemistry between smith and kline. smith plays his usual wise-cracking gung-ho action hero and kline plays the more reserved gadget inventor. both would have been fine in their own movies, but together they act more like they are in different movies. instead of mismatched cop buddies, their scenes together look more like actors rehearsals. i’ve liked smith and kline in plenty of other movies, so one can only blame the screenplay (credited to two teams of writing duos) and the editing here. say what you will about brett ratner, but at least jackie chan and chris tucker make you feel like they care about each other.
in addition to smith and kline, there is salma hayek as the damsel in distress. though she’s more or less playing the same role as she did in robert rodriguez’s desperado and from dusk til dawn, this is the only character that seems to belong in the movie. not that they did anything exceptional for her, it’s just an element that doesn’t stick out like a sore cactus.
the villain arliss loveless is played by kenneth branagh, the shakespearean auteur and director of thor, who spends his screen time in a wheelchair. don’t worry about him though, as the movie painstakingly reminds you, all his body parts are working perfectly fine. it’s uncertain as to why a british actor plays the part of a southern general, other than for a long time, hollywood seemed to like having british or european villains in blockbusters. branagh is more or less adequate. it helps that i have seen him in a worse performance, as a woody allen surrogate in woody allen’s celebrity, which came out less than a year before wild wild west. his evil masterplan, i guess, is to make the south rise again. as evil as any evil masterplans i can think of.
speaking of which, as if the failures of the various popcorn elements aren’t enough, the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that this version of jim west is black. it would be a welcoming factor in any other movie. except for the fact that it is handled here so awkwardly that you feel bad for the actors involved and can’t help but cringe. i don’t think many people would applaud the movie for its courage in taking on the subject. yes, there is a scene where a mob of white aristocrats have smith’s character hanging from a tree. and yes, it’s every bit as uneasy as you think it is. the film seems to think that smith’s quick thinking and improv skills are entertaining as he is about to be hung from a tree, but all that i could think of was how this horrible chapter in our history does not belong in a summer blockbuster wannabe, how embarrassing it was for everyone on the set, and what all these professionals were thinking when they read, and then proceed, to film the screenplay. worst of all, i am inclined to praise michael bay for making the opening bad guys kkk members in bad boys ii. yes, dear readers, there are things here that are less pleasant than bad boys ii.
and that may be the most unfathomable thing about wild wild west, which feels more like a movie by people who have seen plenty of blockbusters but have never made one before. sonnenfeld had previously directed men in black, get shorty, and the addams family movies, all of which are enjoyable. (he also directed the tim allen movie big trouble, based on a dave barry novel which no one likes but me) but there is nothing in his oeuvre to suggest that he’s able to make a big budget special effects-driven blockbuster. the joy in most of his other movies are the little gadgets and the dialogues. there are plenty of both here, except lacking the fun and rhythm of better movies. watching it now, with its dated green/blue screen effects, it’s as if someone gave the asylum a $150 million budget to make a studio blockbuster movie.
there are other interesting postscripts to the movie. this is apparently the most expensive movie warner bros. released that year. less than three months before that faithful july 4th weekend, they released the first matrix movie, which costs about a third of wild wild west’s budget. smith, according to imdb, turned down the role in the matrix for this, because he’s such a big fan of the tv show. there are just as many groan-inducing puns here being mistaken for witty as in batman and robin, also released by wb two years earlier. in addition to the matrix, wb had a hit earlier that year with analyze this, and eyes wide shut, deep blue sea, the iron giant, and mickey blue eyes (which somehow costs $75 million) for the summer. all of which cost less and (surprise!) are better movies than wild wild west. adding insult to injury, it came out the same summer the blair witch project became a huge hit. blair witch is not a better movie or a more entertaining one, but it did make more domestically and have more cultural impact than wild wild west. and it costed about 2700 times less. in fact, this makes the avengers 98 looks good in comparison. interestingly, wild wild west and the blair witch project meet again at the razzies awards, sharing nominations, justly if i might add, in several categories, along with jan de bont’s the haunting remake and the phantom menace.
the most interesting though, is how the mechanical spider came to be in this movie. this dates back to wb’s superman reboot, when tim burton and nicolas cage were involved, and kevin smith was hired as the screenwriter. both movies involved producer jon peters.
as for the “lessons” after the summer of 1998, warner bros. also shelled out big money later for battlefield earth (2000), the adventures of pluto nash (2002), catwoman (2004) and jonah hex (2010), the latter of which is another post-modern revisionist genre-mashup western. with the disappointing results of cowboys and aliens, i doubt anyone would miss it if this genre stays buried in the desert.
to save yourself some time, watch this music video instead of the movie. it’s equally bloated and overproduced. it’s 2 1/2 mintues longer than the song itself, adapting from the stevie wonder song “i wish.”
Search for Wild Wild West on CanIStream.It