The Revolted, Part 1: Wild Wild West (1999)

| May 6, 2019


Some things just don’t work out.  Sometimes the intention overrides the execution and what you come away with is a misstep that, if you’re lucky, quickly gets swept under the rug.  When it comes to movies, sometimes the misfires come in gargantuan proportions.  Enter: The Revolted, a bi-weekly examination of big-budget, highly anticipated movies that, for whatever reason, went down in history and came right back up.  Are they worth the venom?  You decide.

Wild Wild West

It seems odd to say but, sometimes these things need to happen to bring successful people back down to Earth.  Once you reach the top, it easy to lose perspective.  Often climbing the proverbial ladder can lead to a disaster that, if it doesn’t destroy you, at least forces you to take a step back.

Enter: Will Smith, the most genial, easy-going and inoffensive movie star to rise out of the last decade of the 20th century.  No one can say that he didn’t earn his dues even if his pre-movie career seemed a bit slight.  He started his career in the 80s with a promising (if rather obtuse) rap career before moving to television with the now nostalgia-dipped television series “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” at which he succeeded despite the fact that he had never acted before.   No one ever doubted that he had screen presence; he was welcomed but . . . again . . . inoffensive and rather safe.

Then it happened.  In the 1990s, he started the chain-pull up the roller coaster of movie stardom that culminated in two mega-hits centered on alien invasions.  First was the mind-blowingly negligible Independence Day, a pneumatic B-movie retread that never-the-less exploded at the box office.  Second was Men in Black, the cleverest collision of comedy and special effects since Ghostbusters, in which the biggest masterstroke was that the filmmakers to stayed out of the way of Will Smith’s comedic charisma – we loved hearing him talk and they knew it.

His follow-up, however, was a real head-scratcher.

Wild Wild West.  A project that spent decades wallowing in development purgatory until producer Jon Peters pushed it into production, pieced together – according to a story famously told by Kevin Smith – based on his intense desire to make a movie featuring a giant mechanical spider (whatever floats your boat).  The original idea was for the clockwork arachnid to be at the center of a Superman reboot starring Nicholas Cage but when that (thankfully) failed, the project was retooled into a steampunk revision of a television series from the early 60s featuring Will Smith and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld who had work together on Men in Black.  Smith – in a move that I would bet had more to do with his bank account than his autonomy – turned down the chance to play Neo in The Matrix to be in this movie!

The result was a massive chunk of hubris that would have shamed the management at the White Star Line who sailed the Titanic to disaster.  Wild Wild West was a perfect example of Hollywood at its most venal, operating on the assumption that the public will shell out big bucks for anything with a big star and lots of special effects and noise.

Cornered into all the noise is Will Smith, playing a far more arrogant and cocksure but ultimately vacuous variation on Men in Black‘s Agent J but without the humanity.  Where Agent J was curious, likable and quick witted, James West is a massive bore; careless, reckless, misogynistic, self-centered and over-bearing.  He cares or nothing, does anything and pays no mind to anyone or anything.  Even his cohorts get no respect.  He is paired, inexplicably, with a master of disguise (Kevin Klein) whose job would seem pointless since no one in the late 19th century would have known what he looked like!  I suppose this is suppose to be the steampunk version of Lethal Weapon, but the two leads seems so angry with each other for so long that we never get the feeling that they respect or even like each other – even the last line of the film is dismissive.

Given the times (the movie takes place in 1869) one might be willing to forgive James West’s rage due to the fact that at this particular moment in history he had generally no rights and was five years out from The Civil War and would have been despised by nearly everyone north or south.  The character is established as having been the son of former slaves who were murdered at a freed slave colony.  But that doesn’t explain the very Will Smithy-ness of his actions.  Here we are in the 1860s watching a character who looks and sounds like he’s from the 1990s.  It is awkward watching him interact with racist, murdering southerners, particularly when the villain, played by Kenneth Branaugh, makes a point that “I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age.”   * shudder *

This awkwardness hangs over the movie like a storm cloud.  We know the history, we know that this was a full 95 years before the passage of The Civil Rights Bill and that a man like Jim West would have either been incarcerated or killed.  But the movie tries to bypass that by playing it off as a scene of slapstick comedy . . . at a lynching!  That pretty much tells you all you need to know.

Does the movie earn its place among The Revolted?

Yes.  This movie feels ill-conceived from the start.  The actors stand around flailing about in a plot that is only half-realized while the special effects loom over them without point or purpose.  They’re stuck in a movie that is joyless, mean-spirited and racially awkward at every moment.  Given the times, the texture of our society, and the racial inequality that still persists, it is easy to say that this was a project that was wrong-headed from the start.  Watching it is a painful experience.

The Fallout

Wild Wild West was released on July 2nd, 1999, apparently with hopes that it would corner the weekend market in the same way as Independence Day.  Yeah, it was #1 all right earning $26,000,000 on its opening weekend.  But when the public got a look at it, it dropped 39%.

The curious thing is that before the movie was released, the ad campaign for the movie seemed rather timid.  The trailers were shorter than usual and mostly showcased the film’s visual look.  Even the fast food ads seemed muted.

The movie has gone down in recent cinematic history as a prime example of Hollywood at its most venal.  Barry Sonnenfeld’s career as a director of feature films never quite recovered.  He followed this movie with two ill-advised Men in Black sequels as well as the Robin Williams misfire RV and the Nine Lives featureing Kevin Spacey as the voice of a talking cat.

Will Smith, understanding what a disaster this was, distanced himself from this film and tried turning his career in a more serious direction, even earning two Best Actor nominations for Ali in 2002 and The Pursuit of Happyness in 2007.  Of the film, he told Total Film Magazine:

“I made a mistake on Wild Wild West. That could have been better. … No, it’s funny because I could never understand why Robert Conrad was so upset with Wild Wild West. And now I get it. It’s like, ‘That’s my baby! I put my blood, sweat and tears into that!’ So I’m going to apologize to Mr. Conrad for that because I didn’t realize. I was young and immature.”

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
Filed in: The Revolted