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.