The big-screen version of "Wild Wild West," not unlike its '60s television counterpart, thrives on gadgets, gizmos, guns, gung-ho government agents and girls with the gall to get in on the action when necessary. It's a formula that went down fine 30 years ago, when Robert Conrad made his name as James West, a sly and dashing secret agent who always escaped from the clutches of the bad guys just in time to fall into the arms of the nearest available beauty. It was a little James Bond, a little "Gunsmoke," and a whole lotta fun.
Fun, however, is in far shorter supply in director Barry Sonnenfeld's retelling of the frontier saga. His "Wild Wild West" is slick, commercial fare, meant to grab the mass audience as numbers begin to drop on that space prequel and Austin Powers sequel. One set piece gives way to another, wisecracks fly between West (Will Smith) and master-of-disguise cohort Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), Kenneth Branagh gets suitably campy as the evil Dr. Arliss Loveless and sexy Salma Hayek saunters in and out of the picture just long enough to keep our heroes interested, but not quite long enough to act as anything more than adornment.
The most obvious new twist is the color of West's skin, which would have immediately branded the agent as an outsider in the America of the post-Civil War era. After accidentally insulting a white woman at a costume party in New Orleans' garden district, he uses his wits to escape a lynching. The scene might be funnier had similar scenarios not been so common in real life.
His natural dislike for the Confederacy gives West even greater motivation to capture Loveless, the man responsible for murdering the agent's parents and an entire community of former slaves. Now, the brilliant inventor and former Confederate officer is after nothing less than assassinating President Grant and redrawing the national map to his own liking. "The wrongs will be righted, the past made present, the united divided," says Loveless, who is himself bisected: A failed scientific experiment has resulted in the obliteration of the bottom half of his body, leaving him half man and half machine.
Here's where the sci-fi comes in: Loveless plans to carry out his misdeeds with the help of a gigantic tank with legs, a construct known as the Tarantula. He gathers his circle of evil friends, including Asian seductress Miss East (Bai Ling), strong-lady Amazonia (Frederique Van Der Wal) and weapons specialist Munitia (Musetta Vander) and directs the crawling beast toward a dusty Utah crossroads. Shortly thereafter, the metal monolith and its inhabitants do battle with West and Gordon, who make their entrance in a typically ingenious flying machine of the latter's invention.
It's entertaining (if less than exhilarating) to watch West repeatedly slip out of danger, whether he's atop or underneath a moving steam engine, holding the reins of a wagon full of nitroglycerine or on the business end of a fast-moving bullet. Gordon too is funny, and convincing in a variety of male and female disguises. And there are plenty of contraptions to behold, including a pool table that turns into a bizarre restraint, various punching devices, the old knife-from-the-boot product and a brassiere that doubles as a flamethrower.
"Wild Wild West" might once have had aspirations of becoming a grand Hollywood entertainment. Along the way, though, it turned into something far more routine, a slick and predictable piece of moviemaking that's ultimately routine and humdrum.