Wild Wild West

Jul 7, 1999 at 12:00 am

It’s Back to the Future in Wild Wild West as Monsieur Jules Verne, tired from his 80 Days Around the World, stops to catch his breath somewhere between West Virginia and Washington, D.C., tormented – for the first time – by the putrid thought that maybe "bigger" and "larger-than-life" do not always amount to "better."

But Jules Verne was a fast learner and a humble traveler in the land of the fantastic, which cannot be said of director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) whose Wild Wild West attempts to cram into a single picture all the retro-science-fiction-horror-spy-thiller-romantic-action-packed-westerns ever made. Pity they do not Bond. Maybe their Bond was more of a "Double Oh, Behave!" nature. Should they have used a single Bond ... whether they be Bond or free ... That’s enough!

To put it more precisely: Somewhere in or around July 1869, slick government agent James West (Will Smith) and charming Renaissance man Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) do their very best to keep the president of the United States alive so that he can inaugurate the joining of the two railroad lines from East and West at Promontory Point, Utah. There may be other reasons for which the president’s life should be spared, but we’re not concerned with details here. And so it follows that West and Gordon chase Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) through the desert hoping that his Black Death (a cast-iron tank train) is not faster than their Wanderer (a lush and plush railroad car adorned with real marble, real brass and solid Honduran mahogany).

From here on, the movie turns into a gadgetry contest as a steam-driven wheelchair, an 80-foot wrought-iron tarantula (Arachnophobia, anyone?), flipping pool tables, trap doors, sliding mirrors, swinging mallets, secret weapons and other flying machines turn story and characters into mere background shadows.

True, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Age of Innocence) manages, from time to time, to stop this maddening techno-race and focus on the surreal beauty of the set. But chances are that, by the end of this movie marathon, Ballhaus’ peaceful, crisp, desert-and-blue-skies Dali moments will be nothing but a persistence of memory.

Meanwhile, handcuffed to this blockbuster of all blockbusters and sprawled in our reclining seats, we pass the time counting familiar scenes from other movies. So, let’s see: there’s "Wild Wild West" and "Brisco County Jr." the TV series, and all the Bond films, and Frankenstein and Fled and Tarantula, and a touch of "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," and Circuitry Man and The Terminator and Westworld and ...

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