It may be hard for a millennial film goer to know what the late 90’s were like for cinema. For one thing, there was a lot less super hero movies released every summer. Before Marvel and DC began flexing their muscles, the 90’s were a time when blockbusters were centered around movie stars, who at that time were starting to command paychecks reaching $20 million dollars a movie or more. In this same time, you saw a lot more variety in the kinds of movies being made, because as long as a bankable star was attached, people would flock to the theater to see it. It was a particularly strong time for things like the historical epic, the sci-fi adventure, and the romantic comedy; movies that you typically don’t see get the green-light for blockbuster treatment nowadays. And in this time, we saw the meteoric rise of many a movie star. If there was one whose ascent defined the 90’s in a nutshell, it would be Will Smith. The former Fresh Prince had just wrapped up a successful run on television and felt it was time to branch out into television. Starting with the modestly successful Bad Boys (1994), a buddy cop film from Michael Bay co-starring comedian Martin Lawrence, Will would later play a starring role in two of the 90’s biggest box office hits back to back; Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997). Each movie built on the one before and in a short span of time, Will Smith went from a cinematic neophyte to the King of Hollywood. Couple this with a resurgence in his rap music career, leading the entire nation to start “getting jiggy with it,” and it appeared that nothing could stand in his way. But, as we would soon find out, it could also take one disaster of a movie to grind that train to a halt.
The downside to the much of the celebrity obsessed culture of the 90’s is that Hollywood put perhaps too much trust in the actor’s ability to bring in an audience. This often led to a lot of movies either turning out mediocre, because quality mattered less than star power, or they let productions run amok solely hoping for the name recognition to help bail them out in the end. That’s why the 90’s ended up being a mixed bag for a lot of movie stars, who would be responsible for a lot of the good and bad through much of the decade. For every Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) there was a Father’s Day (1997); for every My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) there was a Runaway Bride (1999); for every Ace Ventura (1993) there was a Cable Guy (1997); all movies that pale in comparison to their predecessors. But a lot of these movies could still benefit their selective stars (Robin Williams, Julia Roberts and Jim Carrey) respectively, since it kept them largely in the spotlight. It had to take something tanking extra hard to change all this emphasis on movie star appeal leading the market, and that movie unfortunately had to involve Will Smith, who was a the peak of his powers in 1999. Coming immediately off of the success of Men in Black, Will and director Barry Sonnenfeld were looking to collaborate on something again, given their great experience working on their last film. Not wanting to go right into a sequel, Sonnenfeld latched onto a project that he felt would be an ideal follow-up; a big screen adaptation of a cult tv series from the 60’s called The Wild, Wild West. The original series, starring Robert Conrad, was a quirky spin of Western tropes with a little bit of science fiction thrown in. Having just succeeded making a comical science fiction action flick with Men in Black, Sonnenfeld hoped to do the same in the Western as well, and sadly, he would realize too late how wrong his approach would end up being.
The Wild Wild West series, was a product of it’s time; campy, and low budget; typical of other likewise shows of the time like Batman and The Green Hornet. And that low budget sensibility is what helped it find it’s footing, because the show relied much more on it’s creative story-telling and quirky personalities. Which leads to the very first problem you will find apparent with Barry Sonnenfeld’s mega-budget adaptation; it’s unnecessary excess. The movie, Wild Wild West (1999) cost a then staggering $175 million to make (eclipsed only by Titanic’s $200 million at the time). That’s an acceptable amount of money to spend on a historical epic, but not on an adaptation of a tv series, and one that was budget-minded to boot. Understandably, a lot of people saw that the movie missed the point of the show, which was a point stressed at the time by the show’s original star Robert Conrad, who refused to cameo in the movie and has in the years since publicly mocked this film relentlessly. But, exactly where did all the money go? Well, upon viewing the movie, you will notice quite a bit of the film devoted to showcasing the many gadgets of the character Artemus Gordon (played by Kevin Kline), an eccentric inventor and government agent assigned to work with Jim West (played by Will Smith). A lot of the gadgetry feels out of place, like holdovers from Men in Black, only in a post-Reconstruction America setting, and it shows just how devoid of creativity the filmmakers had in making this movie. They weren’t interested in adapting the TV series; they just wanted to do Men in Black again, only as a Western this time. From Artemus’ needlessly complex train, to the neck magnet death machine of villain Dr. Arliss Loveless (played by a very hammy Kenneth Branagh), to the infamous giant spider (more about that later); the film clearly wants to show off and it does it in the poorest possible way, showing very clearly that a little bit too much hope was vested in the ability of it’s movie star to carry this clunky mess.
Which brings us to the involvement of Will Smith. Will could not have been more beloved around the world than he was near the turn of the century. His movies were beloved, his albums were #1 hits; he was on top of the world. But, that overconfidence probably clouded his judgement leading up to the making of Wild Wild West. It’s been said that Will Smith took on the role of Jim West because he was a fan of the original series, and also having the role be written for him in a bit of color blind casting must have been appealing as well. That said, this misguided career move also took Will away from other roles that may have taken his career in a different direction. For one thing, he apparently turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix (1999) in order to appear in Wild Wild West. Can you imagine how different cinema and his film career would have been had he taken the red pill instead? All that aside, Will doesn’t look too bad in the role. The costuming department clearly set out to make Will appear stylish in an all black cowboy suit. The same effort can not be said about his performance, however, as it becomes very clear early on how out of place Will is in this kind of movie. Not that portraying Jim West as a black man is out of place; the concept is actually well executed. No, instead, Will just resorts to the same tricks that he used in other movies, which makes him feel too modern for this Western setting. He’s a man out of his time, and that becomes distracting after a while. Kevin Kline fares a bit better fitting into the Western setting, but he’s not a good match for Will Smith as the co-star. There’s a rhythm that you need to have in order to work as a pair with another actor, and Kline’s delivery is a tad too mcuh on the quirky side for most of the movie; perhaps more to do with the terrible screenplay than anything. You can clearly see that Will’s performance is missing the stoicism of Tommy Lee Jones from Men in Black to work off of, and he more or less is acting opposite another actor who is acting in the same quirky tone, emphasizing the mismatch. Needless to say, Will Smith has stated that turning down The Matrix is the biggest regret of his career, and it’s clear to see why.
The humor of the movie is also something that is painfully awful about this movie. For one thing, none of it ever works the way it way it was intended. A lot of that has to do with the over abundance of CGI to bring a lot of the gadgets to life. This came out at the point in the late 90’s when the wonder of CGI was starting to wear off on audiences. Having started the decade off with something as mind-blowing as the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993), we were now being treated to computer rendered machines that stood in as a phallic sight gag. Essentially, audiences stopped being impressed. You also have Will Smith and Kevin Kline bickering throughout most of the movie in a way that I guess was intended to be charmingly funny, but we never get a chance to grow to like these characters, so it just feels forced. These characters are not Riggs and Murtaugh; they’re just archetypes built for the actors who are portraying them, who are mismatched to begin with. And some of the scenes that are meant to be the show-stoppers in terms of hilarity just end up stopping the show; grinding the movie to a halt and going on for what seems like forever. A scene where Will Smith dresses in drag in order to distract the villain is especially painful to watch, because it’s both pointless and a shameful desperate ploy to get a laugh from the audience. Yes it establishes early on that dressing in drag is a go to technique for Atremus Gordon for going undercover, but when the movie has Jim West doing the same thing, the plot just essentially breaks down and you feel embarrassed for the movie at this point, because it’s exploitative. It makes it even worse that West’s drag persona is named Ebonia. Yikes!!
Will Smith may have had the charisma to live through some sophomoric comedy bits, but the movie goes even more off the edge when they interject some very misguided racial undertones to the mix. The absolute worst part of the movie lies in the absolute piss poor way that it deals with the issue of slavery in America, and the resulting racism that still persisted post-Civil War in the Old West. The film tries to add some pathos in Jim West’s backstory, telling how he lost most of his family from a Confederate Army raid that destroyed a settlement of black refugees who escaped on the Underground Railroad. Had the movie given more depth to West’s character, this backstory would’ve carried more resonance, but instead it’s just dropped on us as exposition, giving it absolutely zero power. The racism prevalent in the Old West is nothing to take lightly, and it can even be dealt with seriously through humor, as Mel Brooks proved with Blazing Saddles (1974). But, Wild Wild West is no where near as clever, so the fact that it tries to shoehorn in a tragic backstory like that just feels exploitative in the end. But that’s nothing compared to a downright cringey scene where Jim West tries to smooth talk his way out of a lynching. You heard that right. Will Smith resorts to his “slick Willy” charm shtick in a scene where there is literally a noose around his neck, surrounded by a crowd of torch wielding white settlers. For all of those who complained about Will Smith in blue skin from Disney’s Aladdin remake, you need to relax because Will can and has done much worse on film, and this scene is proof of that. This lynching scene from Wild Wild West is without a doubt rock bottom for Will Smith as an actor, and may very well be one of the most offensive scenes that any mainstream film has ever put on screen. There’s a lot about Wild Wild West to be embarrassed about, but this is the moment for me in particular where it just flat out became un-redeemable.
A lot of blame can be put on director Barry Sonnenfeld for taking the absolute wrong approach to the material, or on Will Smith for allowing his ego to cloud his own judgement, but as with many other runaway movie productions, you have to put much of the blame on the one responsible for the money itself. That just so happens to be the infamously eccentric producer Jon Peters. The hair-dresser turned producer had gained a steady stream of hits throughout the 1980’s, culminating with the mega success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Into the 90’s, his track record began to wane, and he split from his producing partner Peter Gruber to venture out and make movies more suited to his own tastes. He tried for many years to get Wild Wild West off the ground, including having Mel Gibson and director Richard Donner attached at one point, but it never came together. Some of the problems arose from a few of Peters’ sometimes bizarre demands of the story. One in particular arose out of another project he had been working on, which was a reboot of Superman called Superman Lives, directed by Tim Burton and starring Nicolas Cage. For that film, Peters commissioned fresh new director Kevin Smith to write the screenplay. Among the many puzzling demands that Peters wanted Smith to put into the script one stood out; Superman had to fight a giant spider. Kevin Smith left the project before it fell apart and always remembered that weird addition he put into script, which became an anecdote that he would retell for years after. But what makes that anecdote so funny is that many years later, we would get a giant spider in a Jon Peters movie, and it was in Wild Wild West, where it felt even more out of place; appearing as the colossal steam-punk monstrosity built by Dr. Loveless in order to conquer the United States. It’s the thing that Wild Wild West is probably most infamous for, and also the thing that it gets the most mockery from. When the best your movie is good for is to be the punchline of a Kevin Smith anecdote, that’s when you know your movie is an absolute failure. It’s not even bad enough to be a joke; it’s a punchline.
Since it’s premiere, Wild Wild West has become the poster child for misguided, runaway studio productions built around the hubris and ego of it’s creative team. In many ways, it spelled the end of the era of movie stars being the driving force of the industry, because if Will Smith, at the height of his celebrity, couldn’t lift this mess to a less embarrassing box office run, then it meant that name recognition wasn’t the magic key Hollywood after all. Studios became a lot more cautious in the years since, and as a result movie stars took a back seat when compared to the appeal of the brand in Hollywood, with stars taking rolls in smaller films in order to keep their names in the spotlight. Will Smith, likewise, retreated from making big budget movies for a while, at least on the same level. It’s only recently that he’s gotten back to the box office numbers that he had been pulling from the 90’s with his two most recent blockbuster hits Suicide Squad (2016) and Aladdin (2019). Even still, you can see how negatively Wild Wild West left a mark on his film career for a while. It effectively screeched the momentum of his career to a halt, and completely forced him to reassess what he was doing when picking his film roles. He’s fared okay since then, with modest successes and a couple Oscar nominations, but those early years still stand out as the ones that people most fondly remember. Wild Wild West is more of a cautionary tale than anything. It shows us what happens when a movie production becomes too over-confident and too reckless with it’s own indulgences. It also proves that It seems foolish to try to invest so much money into the Western genre; a lesson that foolishly was forgotten in the wake of Heaven’s Gate (1980) and was overlooked once again with the equally disastrous The Lone Ranger (2013). Some of these may have fumbled good intentions, but Wild Wild West was just doomed from the beginning, with it’s lazy approach towards the material, it’s reliance on self-indulgent excess (a giant, freaking Spider!!!) and just flat out offensive use of serious, real world injustices. I could go on and on, but the flat out point is that Wild Wild West is a travesty of a movie that unfortunately ruined the solid reputation of the people involved, and now is just best referred to as the punchline that it is.