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Mild West

[whitespace] Wild Wild West

Barry Sonnenfeld and crew defang one of TV's scariest programs in 'Wild Wild West'

By Richard von Busack

IN THIS FITFULLY amusing redo of the 1965-69 CBS TV series, Will Smith and Kevin Kline replace Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as, respectively, U.S. Army Agent Jim T. West and U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon, superspies of 1869. West is a man of action who attacks first and asks questions later, but Gordon is a pacifist who uses his inventions to bring down villains. We get scant glimpses of Salma Hayek in the traditional role of the daughter of the kidnapped scientist--she's plainly a beard to prove the two heroes are straight. Question: Which of the four screenwriters cooked up the idea that it would be more fun to watch West and Gordon squabbling than to see them working as a team? Wild Wild West is a cartoony Warner Bros. film, and it seems as if the two lawmen are really supposed to be Bugs Bunny (Smith) and Daffy Duck (Kline) acting out their rivalry. Kline doesn't evince the paranoid madness of Daffy: he's too cool and self-assured. And Smith certainly isn't Bugs. He doesn't move well, and he's a mediocre comedian. Smith, who seemed like a young aristocrat in Six Degrees of Separation, has become yet another narcissistic action-movie stiff.

Tom Duffield's art direction is elegant, especially in the scenes depicting an under-construction Washington, D.C. And Kenneth Branagh is wonderful as the mad scientist Dr. Arliss Loveless. Branagh was morphed by computers into the condition of Johnny Eck, the Half-Man of Baltimore. His Loveless is a megalomaniac, perverse amputee in a steam-powered wheelchair. Loveless, who loves spiders, is a student of "mechanology." He has a four-story-tall, coal-fired arachno-motive with an all-female crew. His henchmen are wounded Confederate vets brought back with Frankensteinian slices of metal. One is a general with a small grafted-on ear trumpet that looks like a metal hibiscus. When these monsters attack West, it should have been like a scene out of Ambrose Bierce--the Civil War dead having their revenge. Sadly, however, director Barry Sonnenfeld goes for the ham and the cheese even here, burying the mood of one of the scarier shows on television in bad slapstick and boasting. Can we hope for a laser edition that allows editing out everyone but Branagh?

Wild Wild West (PG-13; 117 min.), directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, written by Brent Maddock, Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman and S.S. Wilson, photographed by Michael Ballhaus and Stefan Czapsky, and starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh.

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From the July 1-7, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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