July 2, 1999

At the Movies: 'Wild Wild West'

By Bob Thomas
Associated Press Writer

With customary lack of originality, movie studios in recent years have been resurrecting old TV series, adding big names and monstrous budgets and hoping to make box-office bonanzas.

Their efforts have sometimes succeeded (``The Fugitive,'' ``Mission: Impossible''), often failed (``The Saint,'' ``The Avengers''). ``Wild Wild West'' falls somewhere in between.

On CBS from 1965 to 1970, ``Wild Wild West'' was a quirky series that seemed to coast on the James Bond craze. James West (Robert Conrad), acting as an undercover agent for President U.S. Grant, ferreted out and defeated eccentric villains seeking to take over the government - and sometimes the world. He was aided by another Secret Service agent, Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), a master of disguise.

Salma Hayek as Rita Escobar.

The basics remain but are ballooned out of proportion (and credibility) by the filmmakers. And what a big bunch they are: two producers, five executive producers, four scriptwriters and two original story writers.

James West (Will Smith) and Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) are deputized by President Grant to investigate a mysterious genius, Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh). He is plotting with former Confederates and foreign ambassadors to assassinate Grant and control the government.

As in all buddy movies, West and Gordon hate each other at first. But their mutual peril and need for each other's skills force them to work together.

The agents' journeys take them to a roughhouse Southern saloon, a New Orleans costume ball and finally the real West, where they encounter Dr. Loveless' instrument of conquest. He calls it The Tarantula.

Eight huge steel-structured legs carry a command structure with cannons and other armaments. How the mad doctor and his kidnapped American scientists create the power for this monster in 1869 is unexplained.

``Wild Wild West'' follows the pattern of the immense hit ``Men in Black,'' also directed by Barry Sonnenfeld: two mismatched government agents battling against seemingly unbeatable odds. This time the nonstop action seems less engrossing.

Smith is engaging in his usual wisecracking, ``How-did-I-get-in-this-fix?'' character. Kline, a great comic actor, has more difficulty maintaining his character while slipping in and out of disguises.

Branagh goes over the top and beyond as the insidious Dr. Loveless, but that's what the role demands. Salma Hayek provides much needed female appeal - Kline is unconvincing in drag.

``Wild Wild West'' encountered tepid reactions in test screenings, and the producers went back to the drawing board with retakes. The repair work doesn't seem to have helped. Too many elements remain unexplained, and it can't really take four screenwriters to come up with this for Smith, while he's battling five assassins: ``That's it! No more Mr. Nice Guy.''

The Warner Bros. release was produced by Sonnenfeld and Jon Peters. Writers: S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman. Story by Jim Thomas and John Thomas.

Rated PG-13, pointblank and mass killings, off-color dialogue.

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