Wild Wild West (1999) (part 1 of 11)
Ah, movies based on television shows…
Wait, wait, wait, hold the phone! Why the hell am I even contemplating the idea of fondly reminiscing about this particular genre of films? It’s a well-established fact that the vast majority of movies that are based off of, associated loosely with, or borrowed power tools from TV shows are some of the most pathetic, painful, and preventable examples of sound and audio committed to celluloid.
Sure, there are some not-horrible films made with TV shows as their inspiration. But as the saying goes, even a blind squirrel finds an acorn sometimes, and even then the acorn might just be a pintsized grapefruit.
For every shining example of a TV-based film like The Fugitive and The Addams Family, you get putrid and incomprehensible messes like The Avengers, McHale’s Navy, Mr. Magoo, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Inspector Gadget…
I could go on, but I’m sure fans would rather not be reminded of the cinematic atrocities that tarnished the legacies of their favorite shows. Well, too bad, because I’m about to remind you of one more, and this one in-depth: the 1999 train wreck (pun intended) of a blockbuster that is Wild Wild West, based on the late 1960s TV show of the almost-but-not-quite-same name. (A necessary disclaimer: I’ve never seen the TV series or even heard of it before this film came out, so my comments on Wild Wild West are based almost entirely on its merits as a film, not as an adaptation piece.)
I wanted to like this movie, I really did. I mean, it sounded so promising. Barry Sonnenfeld, who two years earlier had given us the delightful Men in Black, was directing. Will Smith (another MiB holdover) and Kevin Kline were the headlining stars. The special effects in the commercials looked comparable to, if not better than, many other enjoyable blockbusters that came out around the same time. Surely, even as a check-your-brain-at-the-door film, Wild Wild West should have been a fun ride.
And yet, something went wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.
For starters, there are six—count them, six—credited screenwriters (two for story, four for screenplay), which is rarely a good sign. As a result, the movie ends up being over 100 minutes of ideas being shoved around and implemented with varying degrees of success (though those degrees are mostly at or close to zero).
The film tries to be both an adventure and a comedy, but feels content to push the snooze button instead of getting up to put actual effort into either category. In an attempt to hide these failings, the dialogue is peppered with lame attempts at juvenile humor, all of which sink lower than the septic tank of a public toilet in the center of the Earth.
But the worst offenses come from the two leads, Smith and Kline. Unlike his turn opposite Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, Smith has no chemistry with Kline in this film. These two otherwise fine actors don’t so much converse, as spout words in each other’s general direction. And comedic timing between them is as precise as a cheap stopwatch in a black hole. But most importantly, as actual characters in a movie, they’re completely unlikable. They’re self-centered assholes, but even worse than that, they’re self-centered assholes who become complete morons whenever the movie needs them to be.
I should point out that despite the post-Civil War setting of the film, the movie makes very little effort to be historically accurate, especially when it comes to the dialogue. And I’m referring to Will Smith’s dialogue in particular, where he constantly throws out modern slang like “boobies” and “butt-ugly”. He’s basically just Will Smith, dressed up as a cowboy. It’s entirely possible that’s supposed to be the joke, but it’s equally likely that it’s just a product of laziness.
The movie opens in the woods at night. A caption helpfully informs us we’re looking at “Louisiana, 1869”. Surely, this blissful tranquility will not be interrupted… oops, spoke too soon. A giant circular saw suddenly zooms through the air, humming like a Frisbee from hell.
Cut to a bifocal-wearing man (gee, do you think he might be smart, or something?) running through the woods, and wearing a peculiar contraption around his neck. He’s also screaming for no particular reason, other than to let the audience know he’s in danger. As he runs, this is what he yells at the top of his lungs: “He’s a madman!” “I must warn the president!” “Giant spider!” Very useful phrases for him to be yelling while a buzz saw is breathing down his neck. He might as well be yelling: “He hates peppermint ice cream!” “I must wash my socks for tomorrow!” “Nail clippers!”
Naturally, the saw quickly catches up to him and goes straight for his neck. The saw’s work is made particularly easy, considering the guy actually stops running and then turns his whole body around at the last second. A moment of silence, and then another man appears, dressed like a Confederate soldier (in 1869 Louisiana, so he must be a bad guy). He has a bicycle horn-like trumpet attached to the left side of his skull where his ear should be. The man stands and looks down at the severed head, and quips that the guy wasn’t too smart for a scientist (oh, the guy was a scientist? I wouldn’t have guessed).
With this very important information relayed to the audience, the Confederate gathers up the saw blade, which triggers the opening credits.
A fairly generic orchestral theme plays for a minute or so, accompanied by jerky retro visuals meant to somehow pay homage to the original TV show’s credit sequence. When the song finishes, it’s quickly forgotten, though the rest of the movie will happily remind us of it by playing the tune fifteen billion more times.
The movie shifts to Morgan, West Virginia (thanks, caption!), where it’s still nighttime. The camera pans across a town that’s either shot at a strangely skewed angle, or was built by somebody with a wooden leg named Eileen.
Cut to inside the town’s water tower, where we find a man (Will Smith) and a woman swimming naked in the water and getting ready for some sweet lovin’. As they embrace, the first words we hear from the woman are, “The legendary Captain James West… and I finally got him all to myself.” Nope, this isn’t a poorly written piece of exposition meant to establish the name and status of our main character in his very first scene, no siree.
Before Jim and his girl can move beyond first base, loud whistling is heard and Jim swims over to a peephole in the tower. This peephole conveniently (get used to this word, folks) allows Jim to see an approaching horse-drawn wagon. Jim quickly tells the audience that the wagon-riders are working for “General McGrath”. Of course, the gal swimming with Jim will have none of this “work during play”, and resumes their lip-lock.
The wagon arrives just outside the water tower, and men in Confederate uniforms begin loading crates onto the back, with one of the men saying loudly, for no apparent reason, “Next stop, New Orleans!” Wonder if that’ll be important or something?
As this loading continues, Jim becomes distracted and tries to watch through the peephole, while simultaneously satisfying his female companion. She catches on and pulls away, and Jim ends up kissing the air for a good ten seconds, doing his best impression of a suffocating fish. And yes, this is somehow meant to be funny.
Eventually, the fed-up girl takes one of Jim’s articles of clothing and plugs up the peephole. This prompts Jim to snap at her with this endearing innuendo.
Somehow, Belle finds this comment incredibly sexy, and the two begin making out once more. Belle, incidentally, is played by Garcelle Beauvais, who would later appear in I Know Who Killed Me, and soon afterwards become an Agony Booth Repeat Offender.
One of McGrath’s men throws a crate carelessly onto the back of the wagon. This spooks the horses, causing them to pull one of the wagon’s wheels into the water tower’s support beams. Belle somehow mistakes this thud as one of Jim’s sexual moves, while Jim realizes something’s wrong and asks her to hand him his gun. (As we’ll quickly learn, Jim is a pretty trigger-happy guy, so he probably plans to shoot the water for stealing his thunder.)
The horses, now completely spooked by the terrifying act of people loading things onto their wagon, pull the wagon so hard against one of the water tower’s beams (which seem to be made of tin foil) that it causes the tower to collapse. It falls onto the roof of a nearby building, which flushes Jim through the building’s skylight, giving everyone in the audience a quick but oh-so-noticeable glimpse of his Big Willie Style.
Inside the building are several of McGrath’s men, who are stunned to see a naked black man, though you’d think they’d be a bit more concerned about how their wagon just took down the town’s water tower. Jim tries to laugh off this confusion (and succeeds about as well as the South seceded… ba-zing!) before asking for his clothes from Belle, who’s still trapped up in the water tank. She only throws down his hat, and he uses it to cover his crotch, because it’s hilarious.
One of the Confederates begins to call Jim a “shy ni—”, but Jim punches him in order to preserve that coveted PG-13 rating. The other men attack, determined to bump up the rating to the dreaded R for their fallen comrade. It’s during this fight scene where Jim is about to punch one of the bad guys with his hand that was covering his crotch… and he stops as both men glance down to get a good look at Jim’s penis. This shocks the Confederate, and gives Jim enough time to punch his lights out. So six minutes into the film, and we already have ourselves two dick jokes. Wonderful.