Wild Wild West: (A Movie Review)
The movie is Wild Wild West (1999) starring Will Smith, Kevin Klein, and Salma Hayek. Now then, this film purports to be an updated, reinterpreted, incarnation you might say, of the original television series (1965-1969) starring Robert Conrad. Those of you who are like me, who are old enough, may remember Mr. Conrad as the fellow who did the Energizer battery commercials, daring you to knock the battery off his shoulder. Remember?
Anyway, I understand that the original series is about "Two Secret Service agents, equipped with a wide array of gizmos," [who] "work for the government in the Old West" (1). Now, I say what follows with the understanding that I have never watched the sixties television series. Therefore I do not know how faithful this incarnation is to the original.
Now, the premise I quoted to you about the original television series, applies to this movie. It is about two Secret Service Agents who use a wide array of gizmos on behalf of the U.S. Government in the Old West. Our story is set in the presidential administration of Ulysses S. Grant; and Will Smith and Kevin Klein must stop a diabolical genius of a villain who wants to, in some vague way, take over the world, and all that.
As I began watching this film I asked myself: What is this movie? What is this movie trying to do? What is this movie trying to put across? What is the identity of this movie at the granular level? Is this movie supposed to be an action or comedy piece? Are those moments supposed to be funny? How come I'm not laughing? I should be laughing, shouldn't I?
There was a character in the movie---a former Confederate general---who was missing an ear. What passed for a prosthetic was a miniature victrola phonograph, an old fashioned record player with a kind of long funnel for projecting the sound. The prosthetic this character had was a miniature replication of the funnel part.
There came a point when this character adjusts the funnel of his prosthetic replacement for his missing ear. A substance comes pouring out that I took to be earwax. I suppose that was supposed to be funny, but that bit just made me angry. I have been thinking about why that was; and what I have come to is this: There is a difference between constructing a comedic character and making a fool out of a character.
My feeling is that this was a character for whom the screenwriters had contempt. Yes, this former Confederate was a minor, transitory character, but still that's no reason to actually treat the character like toilet paper---especially since the character turned out to have a reasonably subtle motivation. My point is simply that a character with an important and subtle motivation for doing whatever he is doing does not deserve to be treated like an oafish cartoon character. This might seem like small potatoes to you, dear reader, but to me this was emblematic of my fundamental difficulty with this film: its hard to tell what its trying to put across.
At one point, while watching this movie, I thought I had it figured out. Will Smith plays Jim West, the charismatic action guy, a kind of James Bond, 007, if you will. By the way, Kevin Klein plays the agent who has created the weird gizmos, making him the functional equivalent of the Q character in the James Bond catalogue; so Kevin Klein is the 'Q' to Will Smith's 'James Bond.'
The arch-villain of the movie is a diabolical genius bent on, you know, REVENGE and all that good stuff. Anyway, we learn that the poor fellow lost the lower half of his body due to some horrific war-related trauma he sustained sometime during the Civil War itself. But he manages quite well, though, with his automatically powered mechanical wheelchair, which houses other mechanical contrivances including a pair of extending metallic legs.
Anyway, you can think of him, for all intents and purposes, like an amalgam and cartoon-ized interpretation of the prototypical Bond villain (as played against by Sean Connery/Roger Moore as 007).
So then I thought to myself: Okay, this is a kind of action/'James Bond'-type spy action thriller overlaid onto a nominal remake of a 1960s television Western series? If this is indeed the case, does that mean that Will Smith's business management team had been looking for an action/spy thriller vehicle for him and believed that remaking Wild Wild West was a good way into this territory for the popular star? Tom Cruise has his Mission Impossible franchise; Matt Damon has his Jason Bourne thing; and even Liam Neeson, now, has carved out a place for himself in this genre. But Will Smith, as you must know, has his "Bad Boys" thing, which, in my humble opinion, my measly two cents, makes the best use of his talents; he and Martin Lawrence make a good comedic team.
This Wild Wild West thing seems to have been a misstep for Mr. Smith. He and Kevin Klein certainly didn't click the way Smith and Lawrence do.
Anyway, let's get back to the theme about my not being sure about what the movie is trying to put across. There is a scene where Smith's character and the aforementioned diabolical villain missing the lower half of his body meet and taunt each other: the villain taunts Smith's character about being black (Get it, the Emancipation Proclamation and all that?) and Smith taunts the villain about having lost the lower half of his body.
This bit, in my opinion, is funny. But then I started thinking: Oh, is this movie trying to be Blazing Saddles (1974) with Gene Wilder and Clevon Little? Blazing Saddles is the hysterical Western farce.
But then I thought: You know, with the black and white dynamic (Smith and Klein), we have the old interracial, buddy cop movie, action spy thriller.
In terms of the black/white buddy cop dynamic, this movie was seem to give a nod to the Danny Glover/Mel Gibson Lethal Weapon movies; and before that the Gregory Hines/Billy Crystal 'Running Scared' (1986) film.
I guess what I'm saying is that Wild Wild West is a movie montage of things you have seen before.
Now then, at one point in this film, the arch-villain---who, let us remember, is completely missing the lower half of his body---has occasion to make a remark, to Jim West (Will Smith), to the effect that he, the arch-villain guy, still enjoyed sex, by way of, let's call it mechanical contrivance, and leave it at that. When I heard this I said to myself: Wow! That was gratuitously vulgar. I thought this was supposed to be a family-friendly film. Actually, the implications of this are more appropriate for a far, far darker movie, when you think about it---which we will not do here.
Anyway, at one point I thought to myself: Is this movie supposed to be like Spaceballs, Mel Brooks's hilarious spoof of Star Wars of 1987? But then I decided no, that isn't the case. Wild Wild West starring Will Smith does not have the same internal sense of fun (2) that movies like Spaceballs and Blazing Saddles have.
Wild Wild West starring Will Smith takes itself seriously as an action-spy thriller with steampunk (3) inflections combined with comic relief and physical slapstick, not strictly limited to the fight scenes. The comedy provided by this movie is self-consciously meant to make us laugh, in that self congratulatory way that is common.
The comparison to a Jackie Chan movie does not work. Yes, Mr. Chan does make action/spy/police procedural movies with comic relief and physical slapstick. However, in this case, the physical slapstick tends to be primarily limited to the fight scenes. Chan himself tends to play it pretty straight; if there's anything funny to be said, his co-star usually handles that. Mr. Chan handles the fighting. The other thing is the fact that Jackie Chan does not usually do weird or bizarre in his movies.
Wild Wild West starring Will Smith cannot be compared to the television serial spy/secret agent spoof, Get Smart (1965-1970), starring Don Adams. That analysis does not work either because the comedy was produced in radically different ways. Wild Wild West starring Will Smith produced comedy in the typical self congratulatory way of today, as I mentioned. The comedic technique of the Get Smart television series was ironic (4).
So, as far as I can tell, Wild Wild West starring Will Smith takes itself seriously as a 'James Bond'-type, action-spy/steampunk thriller with comic relief and physical slapstick not entirely limited to the fight scenes. When Will Smith says funny things, we, the viewers, are meant to think they are funny and laugh at them. I know that seems like a picayune observation, but that thing I've been saying about the different ways comedy is produced really does matter; and, remember, what we're trying to do is figure out what Wild Wild West starring Will Smith is and what its trying to put across.
I guess all of that is my way of saying that Wild Wild West starring Will Smith is all over the place tonally. But I cannot honestly say that the movie is terrible. It is competently put together, as all big budget Hollywood productions are, I suppose. The movie is not actually painful to watch; and Will Smith is an appealing and charismatic screen presence.
Um, damning with faint praise much?
Thank you for reading.
2. Decades ago comedy was allowed to unfold in a different way than it is today. Think of the Carol Burnett Show, The Jack Benny Show, the skit portions of the old Johnny Carson Show, and for that matter, think of the Saturday Night Live show even today.
But let's focus on the Carol Burnett Show as our example. When they were doing skits, you were often allowed to see the actor beneath the role they were playing, because the actor beneath would laugh at the proceeding on camera, in real time, for all the world to see. Do you follow me? Shows did not mind---and indeed reveled in---allowing the audience see the actor-performer beneath laugh at the proceeding, as an observer would.
In other words, what I'm saying is that comedic performers of decades past often gave a kind of bifurcated performance. Part of them were the actors playing the role, inspiring the laughs from the audience while remaining in character; and part of them stood apart and alongside the live studio audience, taking it all in, and responding naturally, spontaneously, raw, and in real time, laughing at the proceedings.
Harvey Korman and Tim Conway from the Carol Burnett Show were absolutely notorious for this. You understood, watching them do their thing, that they each found the other to be the funniest comedian the other guy has ever seen. They were always making each other 'lose it,' on those skits. Jack Benny often had a hard time holding it together on his show.
Anyway, these days such unscheduled hysterics are relegated to the 'blooper' section on the DVD box set; they are not allowed to stand with the finished, polished product.
Now, what I was saying, as it applies to movies like Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs and films of that ilk is this: Films like that, in my opinion, have infused within them, the energy of the internal sense of fun, characteristic of sketch comedy of decades past, that I have referred to. Does that make sense? I hope so.
3. This note is a definition of the term 'steampunk.' This is a term for a subgenre of science fiction literature. Here's a quick, simple way to think about it: Steampunk is an exercise in past-projected empathetic imagination.
Don't worry about all that. What I'm trying to say is that 'steampunk' is science fiction written as an attempt to imagine what it would have been like had there been science fiction writers in the nineteenth century. It is an attempt to past-project imagine what futurists of the nineteenth century might have envisioned the future to be.
In still other words, it is one thing for me---a natural-born citizen of the United States, living in the twenty-first century---to imagine what life will be like in, say, the year 3000 C.E. I have a certain perspective; I have a certain amount of history at my back. We live in a certain state of scientific and technological development and so forth.
Now then, it would be a very different matter if I---at the same age I am now---were living in, say, 1837 C.E., and imagined what life might be like in the same year 3000 C.E.
First of all, I probably wouldn't use the term 'C.E.' I would be thinking in 'B.C./A.D.' terms.
Second, I would have much less history at my back and be at a very different place politically, socially, economically, scientifically, and technologically, and the like.
So, to write steampunk, I simply have to try to put myself in that head space.
4. Irony in comedy. I said that the difference between Wild Wild West movie starring Will Smith and the sixties Get Smart television series starring Don Adams, is the difference in the way each created comedy. I said that, in contrast to this movie's approach, Get Smart produced its comedy ironically.
Now then, what Get Smart did was to, first and on one level, take itself with the utmost seriousness as a secret agent/spy thriller series. The thing is poor Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) is not nearly so skilled an agent as he most sincerely believes himself to be; his self-confidence (self delusion, really) is practically invincible. Basically, something absurdly funny happens, which is very often the result of his incompetence; and then someone makes a sober remark upon what has happened.
Now, the remark made is sober and serious, in stark contrast to the hilarious absurdity we have just witnessed. In no way is the fiasco ever ascribed to the incompetence of Maxwell Smart (Don Adams). Smart goes about his business in a bumbling way, stumbling through, thinking he's an expert secret agent; and yet his inflated view of himself is confirmed because every week, things work out just fine in spite of his bumbling, or, even somehow because of it.
Some of you may remember that, later, Mr. Adams went on to become the voice of another bumblingly (I just invented the word 'bumblingly') successful inspector/secret agent, one Inspector Gadget. In other words, what I'm trying to say is that the show, Get Smart, was, from the point of view of the viewing public, was, indeed, a 'comedy;' but, internally, it took itself seriously as a 'thriller,' but of course, it was not---that was the joke. Nobody on this show ever actually told 'jokes,' or punch lines, per se; in still other words, nobody on the show ever really said anything that, in and of itself, was meant to be 'funny.' Again, its the contrast that created the comedy.
Another way of saying it was that Get Smart was a comedy that provided its own 'straight man' dynamic. The 'comedian,' if you will, was always a situational pratfall, not a person; and the 'straight man' was anybody that came along to comment seriously, earnestly upon the proceedings, which were plainly hilarious. Does that make sense, I hope?
At any rate, there was none of that in Wild Wild West starring Will Smith. Again, as far as I can tell, in spite of the weird, seemingly incongruous slapstick and comedic one-liners, and bizarre mechanical contrivances of all sorts (which, as I think about it, seem to parody the 'steampunk' path), this movie, nevertheless, takes itself seriously as a 'James Bond' type, action-spy thriller, set in the old post-Civil War West.
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