Rating: "Wild Wild West"
"The Wild Wild West" was an old TV show starring Robert Conrad as a spy in the Civil War service of General Grant, a spy addicted to using 20th century inventions and gadgets with the assumption that these marvels originated way back then. His co-spy was Artemus Gordon, master of disguise, played by (for all you trivia buffs) Ross Martin, born Martin Rosenblatt in the Poland of 1920. In the originals, their arch-enemy was Dr. Loveless, played by Michael Dunn, a so-called "little person" of the day (who received an Oscar nomination for his part in "Ship of Fools"). On a small screen, working with the sensibilities of 1965, the formula worked passably well.
Then in 1979 a movie entitled "The Wild Wild West Revisited" appeared with chunky and little Paul Williams as Loveless. It was soon followed in 1980 by "More Wild Wild West," this time with good old (and larger) Jonathan Winters playing the heavy.
But just to show that today Hollywood will leave no stone unturned, regardless of what rests beneath, the plot is back again. This time itís a summer blockbuster starring Will Smith in Conradís original role, Kevin Kline as Artemus, and of all things, Kenneth Branagh as Loveless. Now, apparently in homage to Michael Dunnís short stature, this Loveless has lost his body below the waist and now must move through the movie on a little steam-powered wheel chair that puffs smoke and leads to all kinds of rude remarks about being short. Knowing that even today there are poor men in our larger cities who must move about on plywood platforms set on casters, and propelling themselves along by the power of old-fashioned hand-held laundry irons. Then in order to bring balance to the proceedings, Will Smith delivers endless quips about slavery.
There is also a great to-do about breasts, the texture of the female breast (buckwheat kernals vs water), and Kevin Klineís endless attempts at cross-dressing in order to pursue his career as a spy. You know youíre in big trouble when the lead review in the newspapers is: "The hippest, funniest action movie of the summer!" as quoted by Omar Lugones of FOX-TV.
Among the high-points of the special effects is the tiny ear trumpet worn by the Confederate general, Gen. "Bloodbath" McGrath (a device that does something I cannot repeat), a huge steam-driven Erector set model of a tarantula, driven by Loveless as he sets out to kill President Grant as the president drives a golden spike into the railroad that will eventually join the East and the West. Plus lots and lots of second-rate gadgets that were first made popular in old Abbott and Costello routines back in the 1940s.
Finally I recently saw a print of the 1927 French classic Napoleon and was astounded to see that the arch-despot Robespierre is wearing the same dark glasses that fast-food joints are giving out today to celebrate "Wild Wild West." Itís obvious to me that director Barry Sonnenfeld was first, repaying a debt, and second, sat through too many showings of "Howard, the Duck" the last feature to emulate the emotional strength of this movie.
Amazingly, this flick is rated PG! And it runs 107 very long minutes. Speed up your stop-watch if you keep time!