Film: The unforgivable

The Big Picture

WILD WILD WEST (12) DIRECTOR: BARRY SONNENFELD

STARRING: WILL SMITH, KEVIN KLINE, SALMA HAYEK, KENNETH BRANAGH. 106 MINUTES

Will Smith's appeal is and always has been based on his cocky good looks. An exchange from his 1996 smash, Independence Day, says it all. Some adoring woman, pleading with Smith not to put his job before her, finally purrs, "You're not as charming as you think you are." "Yes I am," grins Smith. It's more of the same in his new summer blockbuster, Wild Wild West, which even opens with a dame begging Smith - here playing government agent, James West - to make love to her. Needless to say, she gets the brush-off; West has work to do. Saving America, defending the President. Shit like that.

It being the 1860s and all, this time it's not aliens we have to worry about but a bitter, wheelchair-bound Confederate, Dr Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) who, with the help of various European nasties and a team of kidnapped scientists, plans to create a "disunited" States. West wants to deal with him in his own way, but the gravel-voiced President decides to pair him up with a maverick intellectual, Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline). The two detest one another (of course) but, as the film progresses, come to recognise each other's strengths (of course). Will they be able to rescue the country from Loveless's lethal weapon, a giant metal tarantula? A wild, wild guess says they will.

To enjoy WWW you need to enjoy Smith, and I have to admit I'm not his biggest fan. I realised this during one of the many battles between West and Dr Loveless. A bullet zings its way into Smith's chest and our hero tumbles to the ground, apparently dead. I leapt forward in my seat, crying, "Yes! Bold move!"

As for poor Kline, his naughty, querulous lips have nothing to work with. Having read the film's "novelisation" (yes, really; does that make me virtuous or sad?) it's also clear how many of his scenes were cut, such as the one where we discover Gordon's no urbane Harvard gentleman but an actor who blames himself for Abraham Lincoln's death. You can just imagine theatre-loving Kline pumping life into that. Without this twist, he's just the irritating half of that tired old beast, the Odd Couple. And Branagh... He doesn't even make a bid for the three-dimensional. Or maybe it's the hairdo. A satanic fiend? He looks more like Billy Ray Cyrus.

Meanwhile, the film gallops along with all the pace of a milk-float, pausing only to be crass. Along with the myth that racism is something that flourished exclusively in the South, comes the idea that the Indian way of life is wise and holy. This is in a purely abstract sense, you understand (the only Indian we see is a red-faced baddie). West, we learn, was raised by a tribe of Indians - he waxes lyrical about their organic way of life and uses their natural lore regarding insects to defeat Loveless. However, he seems to have no knowledge of their current whereabouts. He certainly doesn't make any reference to the treatment of Indians by his government. How strange it must feel to American Indians to be invoked in this way - as virtuous and uncomplicated as the wolves who nursed Mowgli, or the bulrushes that protected Moses. Primary school teachers for the perfect, all-round American, whose final generous act is to shuffle off this mortal coil altogether.

I know, I know, these sorts of movies are meant to be taken with a pinch of salt. And if WWW were witty and more like the films it's trying to be (Blazing Saddles, Back to the Future Part III), maybe we would. With so little distraction, though, it's hard not to feel uneasy. What to make, for instance, of the stream of anti-black, anti-disabled jokes? (Loveless to West, as they hang over a cliff: "this is a dark situation", West to Loveless: "I'm just as stumped"). We're presumably meant to experience a "politically incorrect" frisson at this, but it's an age-old trick: make one minority group look good by making another one look worse. Smith laughs off Branagh's insults, while Branagh grinds his teeth at each of Smith's bons mots. On top of everything else, it would seem, the disabled don't know how to take a joke.

The film's sexual politics also leave something to be desired. When Gordon and West disguise themselves as women, they're totally convincing. When it comes to tits and ass, which is pretty much all women are in this film, no one can spot the "real" thing (West actually smacks a pair of breasts, in one of the film's direst episodes, assuming they're fake). It's a different story with men. When Gordon dresses up as the President, he's always exposed as a phoney. The President's unique.

Different rules apply, of course, to Loveless. One of his many sins is that, lacking a reproductive system of his own, he's fashioned a mechanical penis - "remarkably well-equipped and indefatigably steely". Naturally, it's seen as part of his loathsome perversity rather than a clever way to satisfy those close to him. Loveless is no respecter of the penis (even his henchman has a metal bell where his testicles should be). His penis pastiche reveals men's "bits" to be as vulnerable - as replaceable - as women's, and for that he must pay!

But is this particular subliminal message offensive, or just plain weird? Whatever else, it makes you wonder about the movie that might have been. The most intriguing sets belong to Loveless. Forget the dull, choo-choo train that West and Gordon lounge around in; it's Loveless's New Orleans bedroom and the engine-room of his tarantula, both full of metal chains,that excite the eye. The only dark, shadowy spaces in a film full of blazing light, they act as gothic sides of the moon,reminding us of director Barry Sonnenfeld's Addams Family roots.

Unfortunately, an audience cannot live on stylistic breadcrumbs alone. WWW is a tortuous declaration of America's dependence - its dependence on illusion. The West - like the American civil war - was won with guns and technology, not manly pluck and whimsical know-how. As Loveless so wisely puts it, "Courage is only as good as the machinery that supports it."

Maybe that's why this expensive, hi-tech blockbuster feels so cowardly. What balls WWW has are made of steel. In trying to hide this, it really does ring hollow.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on