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This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

By Brian Prisco | Film | January 11, 2011 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | January 11, 2011 |

If you need a prime example of the hubris and bloating and arrogance of the remake machine in Hollywood, you need look no further than the 1999 film Wild Wild West. Shot as if previsualizing the TBS weekend eight-peat screenings it would eventually join with Austin Powers and The Mask, the film itself is perfect for hangover theater, like one of the lesser frats mixing jungle juice. It’s a terrible movie that you somehow convince yourself isn’t that bad — I kind of thought fondly of it until I recently rewatched it at the behest of our supreme overlord. Plotted and manufactured like a Bond movie, it takes two charismatic actors and somehow wrings them free of any possible joviality, all the while bounding through tragically unfunny dialogue and wretchedly stilted action sequences with all the joie de vive of the girl running the Universal Studios tour on her seventh hour of saving everyone from an animatronic Kong. Hindsight and history prove for even more mockery of the project, specifically that no one who has watched An Evening With Kevin Smith can look at the giant mechanical spider of Arliss Loveless and not giggle at hairdresser/producer Jon Peters’s obsession with the most vicious killer in the insect kingdom. When people wonder what went wrong with The Green Hornet, and try to explain how it’s not THAT bad, I’m simply going to point them to the $3 bargain bin at Target, where Wild Wild West sits among the straight to DVD Cuba Gooding and Steven Seagal films.

Perspective. Wild Wild West was originally conceived as a Mel Gibson vehicle with Richard Donner set to direct in 1992. Gibson and Donner passed on the project, and instead made Maverick in 1994. They had the time to make an entirely different fucking film based on an old television western that got the blessing of the original star before anyone at Warner Brothers started in on the project. Now, as with all projects of this ilk, the cast is gonna shuffle and shake. Look at the recent A-Team remake. Bruce Willis was supposed to play Hannibal, one of three different rapper-turned-actors were supposed to play B.A., Ryan Reynolds and Woody Harrelson were in line to play Murdock, and Amber Heard was due to play Sosa. The same of course happened with this. Originally, Tom Cruise was circling the drain on this, but as everyone knows, once Mel Gibson abandons a project, the logical choice is to bring in a black actor. George Clooney was considering playing Artemis Gordon, but balked at a supporting role. So we ended up with Kevin Kline and Will Smith.

Kevin Kline and Will Smith are good actors. But they’ve had some rough luck as of late, mostly because they tried to go the exceedingly dramatic route in films that are poor copies of better films. As I stated earlier, these are two charming and charismatic actors. Kline won an Academy Award for his brilliant assholish Otto in A Fish Called Wanda. Will Smith is a nice guy, and he gets a strong pass after showing up in Jersey Girl. I can’t imagine what the fuck happened with this script. First of all, one can see from first glance that Will Smith is a black man. But apparently, because the film is set in the 1800s, the screenwriter felt the need to point that out at every juncture. When he isn’t making every phallic entendre he can think of. The entire film goes from being a government agent tracking down a supervillain to the blackest black ever to black a black. The only reason Artemis Gordon is considered a supporting role is that he takes a back seat to Will Smith’s blackness. It went from a remake to a vanity project for Smith, complete with one of his family-friendly “rap” “songs” over the credits. I think it’s contractually obligated, he just did it in Men In Black two years earlier. I put song in quotations because most of it consists of reading the outline of the script while repeating the title of the film to a bassline.

Perspective. Wild Wild West cost over $150 million dollars to make, making it the most expensive film of 1999. Now go ahead and do the Google search for Pajiba’s Films of 1999 series. All those great films came out, and THIS, THIS was the most expensive film of the lot. And can you tell where a blessed fucking dime of that money went? The entire project looks like it was shot on greenscreen with mannequins, and then reanimated by what was left of Chuck Lorre’s animation crew at Warner Brothers. It seriously has the feel and look of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Apparently, they had to go back and fill in several spots with reshoots to add humor, so they must have dipped into the writer’s pool at WB Animation. I kept waiting for Smith to gnaw on a carrot or Kline to refer to a “revolting development.” I’m surprised the last showdown didn’t take place in Walla Walla or Kalamazoo.

Kenneth Branagh joins the rest of the proud pool of British actors who chew the scenery when asked to don crazy facial hair as a villain. Coming from his Shakespearean background, he clearly is the only person to recognize the sheer stupidity and cartoonishness of the project, and acts accordingly. As an invalid chopped in half and riding around in a mechanical spider with an army of international saloon gals as his entourage, he’s the most cohesive part of the film. But what do you expect from something that’s half Bugs Bunny and half Bond? Think about it. We’ve got our supervillain, Arliss Loveless. We’ve got our “heroic agent” in James West. We’re given an inexplicable femme in Salma Hayek. The men track down the low-level henchman, Bloodbath McGrath (Ted Levine), who escapes. The men track down the main boss, who captures them, but they escape. They catch him again, but he thwarts them, puts them in a convoluted technological death trap, which they then escape. They then track him down where he reveals his ultimate plan, and they defeat him. The action sequences involve enough explosions to shame a Bay, but hardly any action. The film’s convinced there’s tons of fighting going on, but most of the time, it’s just either the two principal actors running, or Will Smith firing his gun and shooting everyone in sight. (I’d use the name of James West, but frankly, there’s not a moment in the film where Will Smith doesn’t want you to know that it’s Will Smith playing one of those sexy, dead-eyed Will Smith heroes.) There’s no trading of blows or battles. Will Smith knocks through cardboard cutouts like a mongoloid raiding Rupert Pupkin’s basement.

The final battle sequence involves West and Loveless fighting in the belly of the spider, after West knocked off the Double Dragon-esque henchmen with various trainware accoutrements stuck in them. Loveless turns into a metal half-spider and steps on his face. Artemis Gordon shoots the spider leg, which causes all of the hydraulics everywhere to fail. West stands up and walks menacingly towards Loveless, who craws into his wheelchair with the shotgun arm. The shotgun blows out the front legs of the spider, which causes it to dip, and which causes West and Loveless to topple out of the spider. They dangle over the cliff and exchange some more painfully contrived dialogue, before West pulls a lever, which dumps them both off into the abyss. Only he catches a chain dangling next to them. He then, breathlessly, grunts, “Now, that’s a whooping.” But it’s not. Nobody got whooped. That’s a dropping. He fell. You made him fall, Jim West. But I know you had to get one more black man reference in before the rap song started.

Perspective. Robert Conrad, who starred in the original TV series, went to the Razzies to collect three of the five awards the film “won” that year to show how little he thought of the project. Conrad was actually approached to play President Grant, but read the script and told them to fuck off. Here’s a tip: if the original people involved with the project, usually actors who haven’t worked in anything big budget in years, won’t touch your work with a ten foot pole, consider a re-write. But it did give Kevin Kline a chance to make yet another movie where he plays multiple characters in the same film. (Future SRL, friends.) Will Smith later apologized publicly to Conrad a few years later about the quality of the film. Further perspective. Will Smith turned down the lead role in The Matrix to play in Wild Wild West. That’s right. The Fresh Prince might have been Neo. What the fuck would that rap song have sounded like?

While Wild Wild West goes down as a shameful example of a Western, a TV series remake, a summer blockbuster, it’s the steampunk elements that scare me. Because steampunk gets associated with just the worst fucking films. How bad? Wild Wild West is the second best film to use steampunk, behind The City of Lost Children. What others have used it? The Guy Pierce Time Machine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Golden Compass, and most notably, Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow. And there are people who will fight me on those films, claiming not all of them are actual, and there are more elements of German Expressionism in Sky Captain than steampunk, but you’d be missing the point, which is name me one quality steampunk film? For a genre that’s so awesome and inspires such remarkable costuming and conceptualism, how do they consistently fuck it up that bad?

Wild Wild West will continue to play on TBS with the rest of the Will Smith canon, which they are actually adding to in spades (see, I can make terribly offensive black puns too, writers of Warner Brothers). Will Smith goes through two phases as an actor: gimme an Oscar and gimme a paycheck. He’s just kind of spilling through the Oscar phase the rest of this year, and then you’ll see him full on paycheck mode. Ready? Bad Boys III, Men in Black III, and Independence Day II, just so they can quickly make Independence Day III. Also, he’s doing a prequel to I Am Legend, and I, Robot II. Holy fucking sequel garbage. But you know what he’s not doing a sequel to? Hitch. Because that was a terrible fucking movie (it’s actually being made into a television series now. —DR. I’m not opposed to remakes and adaptations with the same blind rage I once had. Because I think if you have something interesting to say or a neat take, you can do a lot with the material. I think if the statement you are trying to make is, “Gimme a paycheck” then you should reconsider the wisdom of the project. I’m looking at you, Judd Apatow’s crew. Yeah, the Vampire musical was cute, but don’t fuck with the Muppets. “21 Jump Street” was a….television show. But what are you bringing new to the table, Jonah Hill? Do you even remember the original Green Hornet? Neither do you, Seth Rogen. Just remember, kids. You too could be rapping at the end of The Matrix.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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