The 90s On Netflix: Wild Wild West (1999)
Mark Harrison | On 19, Nov 2021
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Cast: Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek, Ted Levine
Where to watch Wild Wild West online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. In this column, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
“Now once upon a time in the West, man lost his damn mind in the West, Loveless…” In the year that Men in Black came out, Wild Wild West must have seemed like a winning formula. It’s a big sci-fi comedy blockbuster with Barry Sonnenfeld directing and Will Smith starring and providing the theme song – what could go wrong? Not the song, that’s for sure!
A film version of the 1960s series The Wild Wild West was first announced back in 1992, with Mel Gibson and Richard Donner attached as star and director. Those two went off to remake another 1960s TV hit with 1994’s Maverick instead. It was the same story with Tom Cruise and Mission: Impossible, and Wild Wild West continued to develop in the background of this trend of adapting small-screen hits for 1990s audience. In the run-up to Men in Black’s release in summer 1997, Sonnenfeld and Smith were tapped to bring the project to the screen.
In the film, Jim West (Smith) and Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) team up to prevent ex-Confederate officer and engineering genius Dr Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) from taking over and dissolving the United States. Oh, and there’s a giant mechanical spider that producer Jon Peters notoriously wanted to shoehorn into unmade projects by Kevin Smith and Neil Gaiman before it wound up here.
The original series was pitched as “James Bond on horseback”, with Secret Service agents using steampunk technology to battle threats to America. So it goes that the film does what the James Bond films themselves were doing in the 1990s and indulging in the imagined style of earlier movies, full of obvious innuendo and wacky gadgetry.
But where Pierce Brosnan’s mixed bag of films were made under the stewardship of Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, this is a committee-built giant mechanical picture run amok. There’s a maxim that the more expensive a comedy is, the less funny it is, and that’s certainly true of Wild Wild West.
With Sonnenfeld at the helm, there’s at least something of the uncanny factor that’s used to much better effect in his Addams Family movies and the first Men in Black. Plus, the steampunk sci-fi bits are at least entertaining on occasion – for instance, the use of Retinal Terminus Theory quackery to turn a severed head into a projector lens for the last thing it saw is pleasingly ghoulish.
However, any personality feels underwritten and overridden by commercial pressures. A couple of years after Batman & Robin bombed with critics and audiences, Warner Bros’ compulsion to make “toyetic” films in the wake of the Star Wars special editions still looms large here.
Between these pressures, the tone veers widely, resulting in a film designed to make Burger King kids’ meal toys that also merrily gives us ableist and racist wordplay (always the kind of wit you want in a family-friendly tentpole movie) and – somehow – a comedy lynching scene.
In return for the cast’s commitment, the film basically embarrasses each of them in turn, whether it’s Smith’s mega-watt charisma failing to light up the feeble banter or Kline being relegated to second-banana status and sub-Flintstones Air Jordan jokes. Branagh has virtually no shame when it comes to these gigs, which is just as well here because Loveless is his worst ever performance – nobody who criticised his Bond villain take-off in Tenet can say it wasn’t an improvement on this.
At least the music is good. Beyond the title song, there’s a cracking Western score by veteran composer Elmer Bernstein, which blends traditional motifs and throws in some anachronistic contemporary stylings too. If nothing else, this artificially pumps some excitement into some of the feeble, whizz-popping set pieces.
But while the score and the soundtrack are a little better than average, nothing else about the film is. Wild Wild West was among the most expensive films ever made at the time of its release and, while it wasn’t a box-office bomb, its reputation as a dud is well earned all the same. Oh well, we’ll always have the first Men in Black…
Next Time on The 90s On Netflix
“When you used to tell me that you chase tornadoes, deep down I always just thought it was a metaphor.”
Wild Wild West is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.