Today’s feature is Wild Wild West, one of the strangest alternate history movies ever to come out of mainstream Hollywood.
Wild Wild West is loosely based on a television show of the same name that ran from 1965-1969 on CBS, which featured characters of the same names and a similar focus on ridiculous gadgets.
The screenplay credit for Wild Wild West is given to two writing duos: Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson (Tremors, Ghost Dad, Short Circuit), and Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, How The Grinch Stole Christmas). The story credit, however, is given to another duo: Jim Thomas and John Thomas, who have been behind such movies as Predator, Predator 2, and Mission to Mars.
The director/producer for Wild Wild West was Barry Sonnenfeld, who also directed Men in Black, Get Shorty, RV, and The Addams Family, and was previously a cinematographer under the Coen brothers for Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing.
The cinematographer on Wild Wild West was Michael Ballhaus, a frequent Martin Scorcese collaborator who has shot such acclaimed films as The Departed, Gangs of New York, Sleepers, After Hours, Quiz Show, and Goodfellas.
The editor for the film was Jim Miller, who frequently cut movies for Barry Sonnenfeld, including Get Shorty, Men in Black, and The Addams Family. He also edited another movie I particularly like: Michael Mann’s Collateral, starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.
The team of producers for Wild Wild West included Jon Peters (Batman, Caddyshack II, Man of Steel, Tango & Cash, An American Werewolf in London), Tracey Barone (Money Train), Barry Josephson (The Last Boy Scout, The Ladykillers), Graham Place (The Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink), Joel Simon (Steel), Chris Soldo (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1941, Snake Eyes), and Neri Tannenbaum (Orange is the New Black).
The visual effects team for Wild Wild West included a number of workers from Industrial Light and Magic, one of the most acclaimed effects companies in the business. The company was founded by George Lucas for the purpose of providing visual effects for the Star Wars films, and has since worked on films like Howard the Duck, Cocoon, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to The Future, Jurassic Park, Hudson Hawk, Deep Blue Sea, Small Soldiers, and Congo.
The special effects makeup on Wild Wild West included work by Rick Baker (Black Caesar, It’s Alive, It Lives Again, Videodrome), a 7-time Academy Award winner who is easily one of the most acclaimed individuals in special effects and makeup today. He won one of his Academy Awards in the previous year for work on the Barry Sonnenfeld film Men in Black, which goes a long way towards explaining his involvement here.
The music for Wild Wild West was provided by Elmer Bernstein, a legendary film composer who worked on scores for such films as Bringing Out The Dead, My Left Foot, Slipstream, Leonard Part 6, Airplane!, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Great Escape, Robot Monster, and The Magnificent Seven, among countless others.
The cast of Wild Wild West is primarily comprised of Will Smith (After Earth, Hancock, Bad Boys, Winter’s Tale), Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Henry V, Valkyrie), Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda, The Big Chill), Ted Levine (Silence of the Lambs, The Mangler), and Salma Hayek (From Dusk Til Dawn, Dogma, Desperado),
Wild WIld West follows two special government agents in the Reconstruction era, who are charged with tracking down a notable Confederate sympathizer with significant financial capacity who has reportedly been kidnapping expert scientists. The further they dig into the matter, the more the eccentric duo discover a plot to kick-start a second Civil War through the use of advanced technology, which they have to figure out a way to stop.
Writer/director Kevin Smith (Tusk, Red State, Clerks, Chasing Amy) has a famous story about Wild Wild West producer Jon Peters from when they briefly worked together on the abandoned project to remake Superman in the 1990s, which theoretically explains the mechanical spider / spider motif that appears throughout Wild Wild West. If you haven’t heard the story before, I highly recommend checking it out.
Will Smith reportedly turned down the lead role in The Matrix to do this movie, which he has since said was the worst decision of his career.
Robert Conrad, star of the Wild Wild West television show, spoke out against this film adaptation, harshly criticizing it publicly. Apparently, Will Smith himself apologized to Conrad years later for the poor quality of the film.
Plans apparently existed to make a film version of Wild Wild West since at least the early 1990s, and at one point Mel Gibson was attached to star, and Richard Donner was going to direct.
The reception to Wild Wild West was overwhelmingly poor, and the film currently holds an IMDb rating of 4.8, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 17% (critics) and 28% (audience).
Wild Wild West had a worldwide theatrical gross of just over $222 million, on a reported production budget of $170 million. While it was profitable based on those numbers, it didn’t come anywhere near the lofty Hollywood expectations for it, particularly given the price tag, and is publicly remembered as a failure.
Wild Wild West features some hammy acting from Kline and Branagh, with the two chewing scenery all over the movie. However, I thought Kline was actually a pretty solid U.S. Grant that is totally wasted on this movie. Will Smith does his charismatic shtick, which isn’t particularly remarkable or horrible here.
The movie features a lot of over the top technology, which is a fair homage to the show, at least to an extent. I can understand the thinking here: people liked the eccentric gadgets in James Bond movies and Men in Black, so I can see why the team thought the steam-punk inventions would resonate with people. However, it all goes a few steps too far into the ridiculous, with killer disks, head projectors, and giant mechanical death spiders.
Wild Wild West was pitched to audiences as a buddy cop action comedy, but the comedy just doesn’t work throughout the film, and Kline and Smith never particularly click. It turns out that a lot of the comedic elements in the movie were added through reshoots that were done after poor test screenings, which gives the whole movie an unbalanced feel. Comedy isn’t something that can be added haphazardly after the fact: if it is going to work, it needs to either be specifically directed, or ingrained in the screenplay from the beginning.
The length of Wild Wild West is a bit too long for what it is, and the movie already feels stretched out due to the meandering plot structure and interspersed moments of bad comedy. Really, there is no reason for this movie to stretch anywhere near a two hour run-time, given it isn’t particularly complicated or epic.
Overall, Wild Wild West isn’t a totally un-entertaining movie, but it was definitely poorly conceived and executed. The effects and production design are specifically pretty cool, and it still has a bit of a cult following for that aspect alone. However, the humor is pretty bad, which drags the whole thing down. It is still worth checking out thanks to the ridiculous performances from Kline and Branaugh (and to a lesser extent Levine), though, and there is plenty of nostalgia tied into the film for a lot of people.