"Wild Wild West"

Playful acting and summer-movie spectacle can't save this Will Smith vehicle from runninng off the rails.

Published June 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The problem with movies that are spectacles first and stories second isn't that they're dull or tedious. That's certainly not a charge you could level against the techno-fantasy western "Wild Wild West." There's so much going on at every moment -- and so many glorious gadgets and sets, including a luxuriously crackerjack private train for the heroes -- that the movie keeps you going on visual stimulation alone, and that kind of pleasure should never get short shrift.

What's more, the actors manage to maintain some presence -- almost miraculously -- in the midst of all those antic visuals. Will Smith still hasn't yet squeezed all the charm out of his "Who, me?" line delivery, and he looks damn fine in a waistcoat to boot. Kevin Kline is so intuitive and so intelligent that he wouldn't know how to throw away even the most poorly conceived role if you paid him. And Kenneth Branagh is deliciously evil and decadent, a scoop of black caviar laced with laudanum.

Somehow, all that should add up to something more than it does. But "Wild Wild West" is one of those bummer summer hybrids, a movie that's dazzling as you watch it and immediately unsatisfying afterward. You walk out with a vague sense that you've been entertained, secure in the knowledge that lots of ingenuity and talent, not to mention money, have been dancing around in front of you for the past couple of hours -- like a mechanical road-show version of a hit Broadway musical, but with flash and explosions instead of actual singers and dancers.

The sense of having been entertained may not be the worst feeling in the world, but it's a poor substitute for the charged afterglow you feel at the end of a movie that's worked real entertainment voodoo on you. "Wild Wild West" director Barry Sonnenfeld's "Men in Black" is a good example: The goofy gags and impressive effects felt pleasurably casual and effortless, and there was a deftness about the way they just about told the story by themselves.

But "Wild Wild West" -- based on the '60s TV show most memorable (for me, at least) for dreamboat dullard Robert Conrad and the bevy of glamorous temptresses that flocked around him from episode to episode -- tries much harder and succeeds less, no matter how much of a spectacle it is.

One of its stars is the Wanderer, the fabulous train fitted with luxurious appointments (Oriental carpets, tufted armchairs) and outlandish gadgets (a pool table that, at the push of a button, can entrap a victim with a few straps and flip him around to dangle over the tracks). That's the vehicle that takes James West (Smith) and Artemus Gordon (Kline), two U.S. marshals who start out as adversaries and end up partners, across the untamed territory of the United States in the late 1860s. Their mission is to thwart bitter, evil mastermind (is there any other kind?) Dr. Arliss Loveless (Branagh) in his plan to kidnap the president and take over most of the country for himself, with the help of a giant tarantula he's built somewhere out in the desert.

But as with so many epics built on spectacle, the narrative in "Wild Wild West" is so secondary that it's practically submerged -- it's a little technicality that surfaces here and there, instead of the driving force of the movie. Not that the story is hard to follow. There's not much to follow in the first place, and what's there has been slapped down so carelessly that it's clear it's not supposed to matter much. But if a story is going to be that simple, why can't it have cleaner edges? It's a shame that a movie that looks so good -- thanks to cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who captures a kind of cyber-western grandeur with color and light, and the magnificent constructions of production designer Bo Welch (who also worked on "Men in Black," "Batman Returns" and "Edward Scissorhands") -- follows the logic of hapless finger painting when it comes to storytelling.

There are lines and small touches in "Wild Wild West" that do give it some style, and the actors fill in the movie's gaps admirably. Smith has a ridiculous piece of dialogue in which he has to talk himself out of a lynching for accidentally "drumming" on a white lady's "boobies" (this is 1869 America, remember, filtered partly through the lens of history but mostly through the Viewmaster of the summer blockbuster). Even though the scene is indefensibly silly, Smith has the right cool, stylized mannerisms to make it funny. Kevin Kline is, as always, a joy, especially in the way he lets himself droop with comic lovesickness over Salma Hayek, a virtuous lady disguised as a showgirl, who hooks up with the two heroes.

But when Kenneth Branagh is on-screen, as a thwarted military genius and inventor deformed by one of his own experiments, his cartoon deviousness puts the movie on an even, slow simmer that's deeply pleasurable. His New Orleans mansion is a masterly blend of goth and kitsch, all spiderweb stained-glass windows and Boucher rip-off oils of nudie cuties ("White folks ..." Smith mutters when he gets a gander at all that gilt and pink flesh).

Loveless surrounds himself with helpful, buxom babes with names like Miss Lippenreider (who can read lips from a great distance) and Munitia (the munitions vixen). (Famous Victoria's Secret model Frederique van der Wal plays Amazonia, who's just, well, big and tall.) Branagh sits in the middle of all this lush chaos like a Southern gent/pasha, with long ebony hair and mischievous devil's beard. His speaking voice alone may be the movie's single greatest delight, his vowels like a smear of honey, lazy and golden and nastily sensuous.

And then there's the giant mechanical tarantula he rides in on, who, oddly enough, is something of a dear, charming in the way she steps creakily out into the desert landscape, a multi-legged Frankenstein creature en pointe; she's both fearless-looking and a little tentative, just like tarantulas in real life. Fascinating for a time but also ultimately forgettable, she's the movie's big, shaky symbol -- a testament to the money and know-how that went into "Wild Wild West" but also a harbinger of its ultimate vacuousness. With legs like that, a girl doesn't need a brain. But if she had one, maybe she could really conquer the world.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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