Wild Wild West is a 1999 science-fiction, steampunk fantasy adventure film. And it has a pretty star-studded cast, from Will Smith (playing co-lead government agent, James West – and who at that point had appeared in Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black and Enemy of the State) and Kevin Kline (Smith’s co-star, Artemus Gordon, as well as POTUS Ulysses S. Grant), to Kenneth Branagh (awfully-accented villain, Dr. Arliss Loveless) and Salma Hayek (Rita Escobar). It’s (rather loosely) based on a Western sci-fi spy series that ran originally from 1965-1969 – set in Victorian-era America; where the two protaganists were employed to protect the President from all manner of threats; most often the megalomaniacal dwarf, Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless. I wonder why he’s not presented like that in the film. Hmm.
But Wild Wild West did not do well upon release; proving a commercial bomb and barely making back its budget – which was the highest ever spent on a film at the time, apparently. It’s commonly regarded as a pretty trash movie, to put it nicely, and an awful blunder in the eyes of many. It’s got an over-the-top, laughable plot, eye-rolling humour, inventions that beat one’s suspension of disbelief to death, and a truly ghastly title track from Will Smith (which samples Stevie Wonder’s funktastic ‘I Wish’). In short, two agents try to save their country from being taken over by an evil, crafty Kenneth Branagh – or as I like to call him, Kenneth Branagh.
Given the nature of West‘s setting, of course, there’s plenty of plain racism and colonial overtones; primarily from the mouth of antagonistic Confederate veteran, Loveless – who engages in a pretty derogatory back-and-forth with James West, and refers to the ‘dark warrior’’s feminine guise as ‘Ebonia’. One of Loveless’ henchmen – unimportant, overall-clad thug #467 – does the trademark ‘random Kung Fu moves’ before saying, ‘I learnt that from a Chinaman’. But West gets his revenge, doing a Raiders of the Lost Ark and simply dispatching the borderline extra with a thwack of his shovel. The film isn’t afraid to go the extra mile, too, when West (spoiler) actively lets Loveless die after the crazed Southern bastard calls him, ‘boy‘. True, Smith’s character is already a renegade – but to have him kill off the villain without any kind of fair trial seems a tad too far. Then again, Loveless is also a misogynistic, racist, insane terrorist hellbent on total political control of the United States of America. So, y’know, valid.
The humour in the film is awful, juvenile at points – and certainly a reminder of the film’s release date – but nevertheless I still laugh at most of the jokes, from mistaken identity to some of the worst puns made in cinematic history. When Will Smith says, ‘No more mister knife guy’ during a battle toward the film’s finale, I stared blankly at my laptop screen. It’s awful. It’s absolute shite. But the kind of thing I found myself missing all the same. Suddenly ‘No more mister knife guy’ became a hole in my heart I didn’t even know existed, and I could sleep much better now it had been filled by Will Smith and his well performed sincerity.
One of Loveless’ entourage – a frauline whose main purpose seems to be reading lips for some reason – is called ‘Miss Lippenrieder’. There’s a minute-long interaction between Gordon and West on artificial breasts; overheard by the driver of their train who presumes them to be in the midst of some erotic clinch. It’s all frightfully childish.
But there is some real seriousness to the film, too – particularly in the pleasantly jolting inclusion of West’s backstory, which comes as a poignant – if cliché – moment. Smith’s acting shines when he details the story of old war survivors who saw Loveless’ steampunk creations in action; slaughtering dozens in cold blood. These scenes are few and far-between, but enough to instil an authentic motive in Smith’s character, and show the film has more depth than just ‘ha, ha, look over there, Loveless has manufactured a giant metal cock for some reason’.
Speaking of clichés, too, Wild Wild West proves the lord of all Chekhov’s Guns – in the sporadic, comically insane inventions of Artemus: the shoe-knife of James West, sleeping gas pool balls Rita brandishes in panic, belt buckle micro-gun, bulletproof chainmail that ends up saving Will Smith and even Loveless’ high-powered collar magnet which leads the two to Spider City. Each example proves the cliché more and more; as well as giving the audience one baffling invention after another. And that’s awesome.
After all, you just don’t see many steampunk films these days; which is odd given how much the genre relies on a visual medium. There are so many great steampunk concepts out there that never make it to the big screen. The only other example I can really think of at time of writing is 2004’s Van Helsing, which – despite its commercial success – was also received poorly. Perhaps it’s the aesthetically-jumbled nature of steampunk, plus its need for detail, which puts directors off taking the genre from storyboard to screen. Or maybe it’s that most of the biggest examples of steampunk on film are awful. Probably that. But I love them, nonetheless.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld seems to pack an unexplained love of spiders, too, as villain Loveless becomes lord of all arachnids, with the film climaxing in his biggest weapon, a colossal, mechanical spider that David Bowie would be envious of, from Loveless’ base of operations, Spider City. The man’s jacket is studded with spider-shaped clasps, and his harem of bodyguards don dresses embroidered with such imagery. It’s a cool detail, but one that (as far as I’m aware) is never really explored in-depth.
The character of Rita is a strange one, too. Salma Hayek plays her brilliantly; from manipulative foolishness to seductive abuses of the figure; though in the process lingering somewhat confusingly between a Cersei Lannister figure; smart, cunning, using her looks for influence, and just… being that stupid, I guess. She’s definitely a damsel in distress but has her moments of kicking ass. Though the decision to have her ultimately reveal her marriage in the film’s resolution seems an uninspired way to prevent her from picking either West or Gordon as a love interest; a fork in the road that’s been set up through the film’s nigh-two hour runtime. I guess the renowned Escobar she’s married to doesn’t mind that she’s quite seriously promiscuous half the time.
Smith and Kline make the perfect pair, however, each embodying the role of quick-tempered, womanizing rogue and stuck-up, intelligent inventor with ease. The dialogue between the two creates some of the film’s best dialogue; and allows a real exploration of their character that’s not shoved in your face – something I would expect from a film like this.
To be honest, though, Wild Wild West is a trash film. It’s garish, it’s tacky, it’s poorly executed and elicits many a heavy sigh throughout.
But it’s one of those films that’s so bad it’s good. And it’s not even entirely bad. Some areas are actually pretty good. After all, that budget had to go somewhere. The CGI – whilst lagging by today’s standards – doesn’t look all that terrible, to be fair, and the intricate details throughout the movie’s countless contraptions and machinations are nothing short of phenomenal. The team behind each and every one deserve recognition. Every time I return to Wild Wild West, I’m presented with another piece of machinery I missed the first seventeen times. The acting is great; even from Branagh – if you can look past the utterly terrible southern accent.
And, more than anything, it’s just stupid. And who doesn’t love a stupid movie? They’re the best; bite-sized pieces of non-committal cinema which know where they stand. Movies you can watch again and again, bordering on the self-aware at times with cringey puns and ridiculous plot threads. Wild Wild West is that all over.
And God, I love it.