Will Smith has become something of a Fourth of July tradition, what with the smashing success of "Independence Day" and "Men In Black," both of which were released during the holiday weekend. Will he manage to do it again with "Wild Wild West"? As far as audiences are concerned, he probably will, even though this Western-science-fiction-adventure comedy can't match the wit and imagination of "Men in Black" or the sheer bombast of "Independence Day."
At times incoherent, with long, dull stretches, "Wild Wild West" doesn't exactly jump off the screen. But it will prove to be great fun for Smith's fans and, since this appealing star is in nearly every scene, will give them plenty to root for. Bolstered by a subtly funny supporting turn by Kevin Kline and a scenery-chewing performance by Kenneth Branagh, Smith carries the movie with his signature ease.
The first question, of course, is how Smith looks in those super-tight pants that Robert Conrad wore in the original TV series. The answer is: Terrific. Most of "Wild Wild West" is attitude, and Smith, who carries his fame with the confidence and elan of a true movie star, has been blessed with a double-dose. He's also willing to make himself look ridiculous, as in the movie's opening scene where he's bathing in a water tower with a nubile beauty, trying to keep an eye out for a murderous villain.
Indeed, Smith is probably the perfect choice to play special government agent Jim West, in that he can be as funny, sexy, muscular and believable as Conrad's character was. An equally perfect choice is Kevin Kline as sidekick Artemus
Gordon, the non-violent foil for West, whose philosophy is to "shoot first, shoot later, shoot some more, and then when everyone's dead ask some questions."
When the two men are assigned by President Ulysses S. Grant to find a group of kidnapped scientists in one week, the unlikely team set out on their private train, only to meet up with the dastardly Dr. Loveless (Branagh, relishing a huge piece of hambone), a legless Confederate veteran with a penchant for spiders, hydraulics and world domination.
In line with the TV series, "West," directed by Barry Sonnenfeld ("Men In Black"), blends action, drama, gadget-driven sci-fi, romance and comedy, with unevenly entertaining results.
Film goers may or may not be surprised that the sex quotient has been considerably amped up here. "WWW" is awash in cleavage and suggestive jokes -- the most unsavory may sail over kids' heads. Anyway, they'll be too busy marveling at the ingenious contraptions to care much about the goings-on in a small-town brothel.
The movie's finest moments are its sight gags, such as a tiny dog reproducing the RCA logo with a dead soldier's old-fashioned hearing aid, or a sequence involving Dr. Loveless' art collection, which gives new meaning to the term tableaux vivant. Toss in some impressive train-top stunts, lots of explosions and an admittedly overlong fight sequence in the belly of a beast that puts "Starship Troopers" to shame, and you've got a movie that turns out to be better than its extensive re-writes and re-shootings would suggest.
That doesn't mean that "Wild Wild West" is inspired: The story never really veers from its by-the-numbers plot, the filmmakers rely far too heavily on such hoary routines as putting its male leads in drag and Salma Hayek, as a gratuitous love interest, wanders around like an afterthought.
But to its credit, "Wild Wild West" does manage one surprise, never flinching from addressing head-on the fact that West is that rarity of rarities in Hollywood, a black cowboy. Indeed, it features some surprising -- and refreshingly frank -- talk about race, whether in West's and Loveless' exchange of offensive barbs or when West's true motivation for chasing his nemesis comes to light.
"Wild Wild West" may not be a work of genius, but at least in these sequences, it's smarter than it thinks it is.
'Wild Wild West'
Starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Released by Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 (action violence, sex references and innuendo)
Running time 107 minutes
Sun score * * 1/2
Pub Date: 6/30/99