(Wild Wild West, Barry Sonnerfeld, USA, 1999, 106 mins)
Will Smith sings “Any damsel that’s in distress, be outta that dress when she meet Jim West” in the song for the film of the same name. Not played until the end of the movie, the audience nevertheless are plainly aware of what characteristics our lead role has; charm, crudeness and without a doubt he is a womaniser, like a Thomas O’Malley of the West. Not unlike his character of Agent J in Men In Black (1997), Smith brings quick wit and amusing one liners to Wild Wild West, well, depending on your sense of humour. Director Barry Sonnerfeld is also accountable for Men In Black II (2002) and soon to be Men In Black III (2012); portraying a similar style of narrative involving a pair of ambitious protagonists, a damsel in distress, and the preference of sci-fi which can also be seen in this film. Science fiction and the western are an unusual blend, which is an element that may bewilder the audience rather than excite them. However, the combination clearly wasn’t a one-off as audiences are being teased with the prospect of Cowboys and Aliens, to be released this year, also a western with sci-fi catastrophes.
On the other hand, there are still the western conventions throughout the film; horses, lassoes and guns being numerous examples, although the main notion is of this black captain living amongst white southerners after the Civil War. With the aid of some fantastic actors, this sensitive subject is slightly humorous through Jim West and inventor villain Dr Arliss Loveless’ (Kenneth Branagh) continuous racist and disabled jokes (“Mister West! How nice of you to join us tonight and add colour to these monochromatic proceedings”), as Loveless attempts to take over the USA, and kidnap President Grant (Kevin Kline) despite only having half of his body remaining from the war. Some of these puns may seem a little desperate, but their childish competitiveness is something which makes the film enjoyable for the family, regardless of the frequently increasing amount of characters, which at some moments may confuse the children in the audience.
The contrast between the two government agents assigned to protect the president; Jim West and Marshal Artemus Gordon (also Kevin Kline) illustrate their differences in dealing with problematic situations; West taking a more physical approach while Gordon takes a logical and disguised identity to squeeze his way mischievously into the lives of those he pursues. Their relationship is hesitant, as both characters are too stubborn to work with the other, however as the film progresses and with the help of the gorgeous Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek) a daughter of a scientist for them to compete over; they must combine their strategies to defeat Loveless, who has taken all the scientists in the world to assist him in making monstrous inventions. Branagh’s role in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) as Professor Lockhart reflects through his performance as Loveless, he is an endearing villain, yet easily distracted by the attention of women, particularly in the unpredictable scene of Smith dressed as a belly dancer. Rita proves to be a disturbance also, never pushing the narrative forward and more often than not interrupting the action, the only entertainment she seems to provide is the way she teases both West and Gordon on their gadget filled train.
Loveless’ impressive monster metal tarantula is magnificent in CGI as it stomps across the desert to kidnap the president, however the scenes in which West and Gordon are trailing themselves as far away from each other due to the magnets around their necks are disappointing. The second half of the film feels abandoned; there is no tenderness in the visual style, it is chaotic, cluttered and noticeably unreal as the characters walk away from what appears to be a still picture of rocky terrain in a very unconvincing sunlight. This is not one of Smith’s best roles; nevertheless his ability to work independently or within a joint lead role is praiseworthy, and despite the fact he performs outstandingly in a serious atmosphere such as I Am Legend (2007) or Seven Pounds (2008) it is always a pleasure to see the recognised qualities and traits of our Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.