Believe it or not, I can remember a time before streaming services, and before cable television even, when the choices for your evening entertainment were limited to the few channels your antenna could receive. I have most of the modern conveniences today, and yet I live in a house that still relies on an antenna. But that is a story for another time and place. My family first got cable in the late 1980s, though prior to this I can remember many of the shows that were in reruns from a previous time. These included that wacky old Batman (1966-1968), and the slightly less wacky The Wild Wild West (1965-1969). Perhaps I have always been an odd bird because I watched these shows with an attention span unusual for a child, or at least this is what I tell myself. My parents might say differently, but given that I recall key elements of these shows, I feel that they must have commanded some of my mind’s focus. And they stuck with me, which is which I recall going to see the more modern film adaptation, Wild Wild West (1999) in the theaters. Remarkably, I have seen it a few times in the last twenty plus years. I say “remarkably” because there are those who would say it is one of the worst movies of all time, though you would not know it from the cast. At any rate, on with the review.
Wild Wild West, oddly enough, does not start in that fabled time and place of American History, but rather with a man in Louisiana in 1869 with a metal collar around his neck. The other noteworthy aspect of this scene is the saw blade buzzing through the air, which soon decapitates the man as another person in a Confederate uniform looks on. We then shift to West Virginia (I promise we get to the title locale, eventually) and catch up with Captain James West (Will Smith). Though he is mixing business with pleasure by performing a stakeout while in the midst of a romantic rendezvous, he nonetheless notices the arrival of a group of Confederate looking soldiers led by the same person we had previously seen. They have brought explosives, but it is their leader, General “Bloodbath” McGrath (Ted Levine), that is Captain West’s primary target. As it turns out, he is not the only person in town after the former Rebel commander. Dressed in drag is United States Marshal Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), who believes that McGrath can lead to the recovery of the kidnapped Professor Escobar (Gary Carlos Cervantes). Captain West interrupts Gordon’s interrogation of McGrath, and in their struggle the Confederate escapes and a building is blown up for their trouble. Not long thereafter Captain West is summoned to Washington D.C. to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant (Kevin Kline). It does not take long for Captain West to notice that the president is an impostor, and again it turns out to be Gordon. Impressed, the real Commander-in-Chief (still Kline) emerges and informs the two others that they will be working together to investigate the abductions of America’s top scientists. Their mission is given an added boost when Grant shows them a note from an unnamed source saying that he is using the brilliant minds to develop weapons, and that the government has one week to surrender. To aid their search for the perpetrator, they are given a special train called The Wanderer. They also use the severed head from before to learn of a planned ball in New Orleans. I am not making this up. Because the two have different styles of doing things, Captain West sneaks in dressed as he always does, and Gordon disguises himself as a Russian woodsman. Either way, they are soon in the presence of our villain, Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh). At this party, they learn that not only is Dr. Loveless the person behind all the kidnappings, but that he is a committed Southern sympathizer. The weapons demonstrations he gives for the guests show the terrible fruit of his misdeeds. They seem to have everything they need to make their move. What prevents their early success is one of the prisoners they free at Dr. Loveless’ party, Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek), who is there to find her husband. She accidentally sets off a sleeping gas bomb that knocks out herself, Captain West, and Gordon, allowing Dr. Loveless to escape. The villain’s next move is to head to where Grant will be, which is at the point where the Trans-Continental Railroad spanning the United States will be joined, absconding with The Wanderer to boot. Further, he takes Rita hostage and leaves our two heroes in a trap. Though Captain West and Gordon are able to free themselves, they must now make it the same distance as Dr. Loveless, the destination they know as their adversary conveniently told it to them. They do not arrive in time to prevent Grant’s abduction. However, they are there to see Dr. Loveless unleash his giant spider machine, capable of leveling cities. Ramping up the historical improbability is their method of getting onto said death robot, which involves Gordon essentially inventing an airplane on the spot. Anyway, action nonsense ensues, which ends with Dr. Loveless falling to his death and the day being saved. As a reward, Grant names Captain West and Gordon inaugural agents of the United States’ Secret Service, but leaves in The Wanderer, making the giant spider the vehicle in which our heroes ride into the sunset.
Wild Wild West is a movie that I realized the ridiculousness of even at the impressionable age of nineteen. If there is one thing I do not recall from the show, it is that it lacked this level hokey. Hence, it is probably not surprising that it did not get a sequel. Further, there are not too many lessons to take from the film, Catholic or otherwise. Captain West is motivated by revenge early on in going after McGrath. The Church teaches that such things are best left to God, and anyway Dr. Loveless takes care of this for Captain West by killing his former Confederate compatriot. I suppose I could get incensed by Captain West and Gordon bickering and drooling over Rita, and her lying about her relationship with Dr. Escobar. Our pair do not find out that the Escobars are married until the end, and what I said earlier was me simply informing you what is going on with them for the sake of time. Actually, the Bible contains instances of figures like Abraham telling others that his wife is actually his sister when they entered into potentially hostile territory. In that setting, there is a point, with Abraham trying to protect himself from execution, and his wife from being raped. In the film, the prevarication is pointless, so that is where the comparison ends.
In summation, there is no reason to watch Wild Wild West. In fact, I think the only reason it was made was to give Will Smith’s music career one last go around before he committed to acting. There is nothing terribly objectionable about it, it is just silly. If that is your speed, go for it. Or watch it to see what Will Smith was doing long before he was slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars. Otherwise, it can be safely kept in the last days of the twentieth century.