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Wild Wild West

How the west is lost

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Written by S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, Jeffrey Price, and Peter S. Seaman, story by Jim Thomas and John Thomas

With Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek

The process of pre-production is a long and important part of the film-making process, especially for a big budget special effects extravaganza like Wild Wild West, a third potential Independence Day blockbuster juggernaut from Will Smith. I’m certain that for the months before the actual shooting began, the special effects were under development, the futuristic gadgets, gizmos, thingamajigs, and whatchamacallits were being designed, and the eye-popping sets were being constructed. It seems that in the hustle and bustle of the creative process (which, admittedly, brought some superlative results), one thing was forgotten: namely, everyone involved completely forgot to read the script. How this could have happened, I’m not sure; but the result is a huge, loud, blistering, fast, and busy mess. Hardly surprising, given that the credits list six screenwriters and nine producers.

WWW certainly has its hands full, trying to be absolutely everything to absolutely everyone. It’s a western, a parody of James Bond movies, a sci-fi adventure, an action flick, a buddy film, a slapstick comedy, and a dark rumination on the American history. It ends up, of course, being none of the above -- just an extravagant way to spend its gargantuan budget.

The story -- if one can call it so -- involves federal marshal Jim West (Will Smith), hot on the trail of Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a diabolical mastermind who kidnaps the nation’s top scientists for his dastardly purposes. On his quest, West is paired up with his colleague Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), whose modus operandi involves brains rather than brawn. Together, they chase Loveless, get involved in some gunfights, some fistfights, and a whole lot of computer-generated imagery. Along the way, they team up with Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek), who is lucky when she’s used as a lame plot device: usually, she just gets to lurk around the periphery of the action.

Said action, to tell the truth, is shockingly uninvolving. It’s inanely filmed and edited, most of it involving a rapid cut from a close-up of West firing a gun or waving his fists to a close-up of his adversary hitting the ground. The curious absence of master shots is confusing and suggests that the rapid cutting and close-ups are mostly used to hide the fact that most of the action is extremely bland.

That’s rather regrettable, considering that the director is Barry Sonnenfeld, possessing perhaps the most off-kilter comic sensibility among the modern mainstream directors. After all, this is the man who directed both Addams Family films, as well as Men in Black. Here he doesn’t seem to direct as much as merely organize, trying to make sure all the film’s disparate elements make their way onto the screen -- and he tries so hard, he seems to forget everything else.

The fact that almost none of these elements make any sense is obviously ignored, resulting in many shockingly inept sequences. There’s an extended bit with our two heroes chased by two flying magnetic disks, which look like a cross between a Frisbee and a circular saw. I had no idea that permanent magnets behave this way: in WWW, they are exempt from laws of gravity, inertia, and friction; the same-charge magnets don’t repulse each other; and they change polarity if you kick them. I would probably forgive all of that, if that resulted in something that was exciting, thrilling, or funny. Unfortunately, it accomplished none of these.

I’m not even going to expound upon the West-in-drag scene, or the ludicrous plot point where Rita gets uncontrollably hysterical just so the plot can lurch forward, or the obvious blue-screen shots, or the weird homoerotic subtext, or Kenneth Branagh’s blisteringly bland performance as a megalomaniacal villain. Branagh, usually a forceful screen presence, is here completely upstaged by his facial hair.

Only two people escape WWW with their dignity intact. One is Kevin Kline, who is forced to go through humiliating stuff, but manages to keep his sense of humor, and even infuse some gentle self-depreciating whimsy into the proceedings. Another one is production designer Bo Welch (Men in Black) whose work is excellent.

WWW is certainly easy on the eyes, and it’s rarely boring to watch, with Sonnenfeld keeping the proceedings light and at a brisk pace. Quite a few neat one-liners also help, and the last half an hour offers a whole lot of spectacular special effects. But the movie is so chock-full of stuff, that most of it ends up canceling itself out. Wild Wild West is so full of sound of fury that it manages to signify even less than nothing.