Published July 1, 1999
Wild, Wild West, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, is one of those movies where you can reconstruct the story conference.
“It’s James Bond in the Old West,” says the pitchman. “Only he’s black, you see. Will Smith would be perfect for the part. He can be a dandy, Maverick-like, and of course a ladies’ man. But he’s also a federal agent, see? That’s why he’s on the trail of a mad genius out to assassinate the president — somebody find out who was president then! — and take over the country. We can get one of those posh Brits to play the mad genius. Jeremy Irons? Anthony Hopkins? They’re too big. I know: that guy Branagh. He hasn’t had a hit since the Shakespeare thing. He’ll need to be some kind of cripple and we’ll surround him by hot babes in Victorian underwear who work all his fantastic inventions. Like what? Like, um, an 80-foot tall, mechanical spider driven by steam and armed with machine guns and rockets
“Will will need a sidekick. Like Mel only cheaper, of course. He’s the gadget man, like Q, but he’ll have to be a character in his own right. Who do we have who can look brainy and macho at the same time? How about Kevin Kline? What a great idea? He can be another federal agent on the same case but disguised. I know, we’ll put him in a dress and have Will make a pass at him. Or maybe we’d better make it somebody else who makes the pass. When he gets out of the dress, he can be a rival of Will’s for, for. . .some babe. What do you mean what’s the babe doing there? For Chrissake, she’s being a babe! Maybe her old man’s been kidnaped by the evil genius or something. Salma Hayek! She won’t have to open her mouth. Also, we can add to the drama by giving Will a personal reason for chasing the bad guy, like maybe he murdered his family. Of course he’s racist. But we’ll need a more obvious racist too — some ex-Confederate general with a grotesque prosthesis who’s in league with Branagh. . .”
And so on. It must have sounded like a good idea at the time. In fact, it is one of the most amazingly bad movies of the year. It goes without saying that, no one in the story conference was thinking in terms of plausibility. That was gone even before they got to the 80-foot steam-powered spider. But with the spider, they must have realized that the thing would have to be entirely comic, so the plot also went out the window. This plot would make that of a Bond film look realistic. So all they were left with in the end were the babes in Victorian underwear, the gadgets and the comedy. But the babes were so superfluous that their pretending not to be by working the spider’s weaponry was just irritating. Worse, the gadgets were given up entirely to the computer animation people, who made no concession to the period setting but simply designed stock s-f weaponry inexplicably transplanted to Utah from the planet Zenon. Worst of all, the comedy wasn’t funny.
When the script — by a committee consisting of S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman plus others, no doubt, uncredited — was delivered, somebody should have pulled the plug. When they ransacked its treasure-hord of lame jokes and unfunny comic business to do with masculinity-anxiety and couldn’t even find enough laughs in the thing to make the trailer funny, somebody should have known. But Warner Brothers must be so awash with money right now, that the misbegotten thing was made anyway. And thank God it was! For this movie will stand for generations as a perfect example of all that was wrong with the American movie industry in the 1990s.