Wild Wild West is a 1999 action-comedy with steampunk overtones that was a modest box office hit but a critical failure.
It tells the tale of a disillusioned maniacal Confederate sympathizer named Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), who is planning a second Civil War to break up the United Sates and overrun its government. President Grant tasks two unlikely men, U.S. Army Captain James West (Will Smith) and U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), one a gunslinger and the other a master of disguise and inventions to save the day.
The film is widely recognized as one of the worst movies of 1999, if not the decade, and legitimately so. There’s not much joy in the adventure story famous for its numbing finale, which features an 80ft, steampunk, mechanical spider in Monument Valley. And while an 80ft steampunk, mechanical spider in Monument Valley already buries the needle on the insanity scale, it’s not the only thing that made Wild Wild West something so wrong. Smith even publicly apologized to the star of the original television series years later. Here are three reasons why it is even worse than you remember.
3) It Thinks Men And Breasts Are Automatically Funny
Throughout the movie, a running gag is that Artemus is a master of disguise and in the film’s opening, is dressed as a woman with modest decolletage. He’s wholly unconvincing of course, but for the sake of the movie, attracts other men because of his pronounced artificial bosom, which he claims are “aesthetically and scientifically perfect.” Okay.
The film then proceeds to have a scene where Artemus and West are preparing to attend a costume party hosted by Loveless, and even though “Jim West does not wear costumes,” they debate about what they should wear in order to remain unrecognized. Artemus recommends West go as a riverboat captain and he will dress as a saloon girl. That’s where the joke should end, but it doesn’t. Out come the fake breasts and the ‘gag’ continues. Artemus straps on the bulbous apparatus and West comments on how Artemus is unconvincing as a woman, and not because the wig and the makeup and the dress were bad the last time he wore the costume, but because the bosom was “hard, and stiff and sticking out like a couple of rusty canons on a sunken ship.” Here are some images from the costume from which he is referring. Rusty canons?
So now we have these two professional men in a closet, one wearing fake breasts he proclaims are scientifically perfect and the other saying that they are not, having a prolonged conversation about them, but it’s still not ‘funny’ yet because what good are two men talking about the texture and balance of a breast unless someone within ear shot can completely misinterpret what they hear. Enter Coleman (M. Emmet Walsh), a colleague who runs the train they are on. He sees and hears the men talking about touching breasts and naturally mutters to himself snidely, “I knew it.”
Wait. Knew what? What is he implying? What is he think they are doing? But, either way. Joke’s over, right? Nope. Just getting started. Now we shift back to the boys and West is squeezing one of the breasts and Artemus complains that West has shifted all the buckwheat inside and ruined the effect. So, he takes out the inner pouch and West snatches it, telling him, that’s the problem. He then turns to the faucet (because there’s a faucet in the closet) and fills it with water. He then holds the water-filled sack up to his chest and instructs Artemus to touch his breast. And guess who is still listening.
So now we have the payoff. Coleman hears the men describing the fake breasts and it goes like this:
West (with Artemus caressing the water-filled pouch): Now that’s what a breast is supposed to feel like.
Artemus: Very nice.
West: Now touch yourself.
Artemus: Oh my god, I’m hard (referring to the buckwheat pouch).
This is a conversation no one in the world would ever have and was written specifically for the benefit of the joke, not that story. Read that conversation again. It’s not, “Now touch your fake breast,” it’s, “Now touch yourself.” And it’s not, “Mine are hard,” it’s “I’m hard.” See the difference. But the real reason this doesn’t work is that Coleman is right in front of them. West can clearly see him. The point of a joke like this is that the person hearing can’t see what is happening. That’s why it works. They have no context for the dialogue. Here, he can see they are standing in a costume closet, that they are not physically engaged in anything compromising, and could, with one word or three steps, join the conversation and be done with it. Plus, “this is what a breast feels like”? A bag of water? Has he ever touched a breast? At least it’s not a bag of sand.
2) It Thinks Women Are Things (and stupid)
Okay, this is an old argument applicable to many films, and the 1990s were notoriously bad for female characters, but Wild Wild West is especially guilty and worse, they play it like a joke, which is even more disturbing because the women are portrayed as over-sexualized dimwits that are to be ogled and made fun of. While there are a number of terrible offenses, including the entire character of Miss East (Bai Lin) who spends her only time on screen in various states of alluring undress with the camera focused on her bottom in one gratuitous shot that shows her nearly nude derriere in sync with the emphasized word “poke”. Someone thought that was funny.
Again, there are many low-brow comedies that do sexual humor well without demeaning the women (or men) they involve. Not here. In this moment, the film directs that misguided, immature sexual objectification at the fourth-billed name on the film, Selma Hayek. She plays the daughter of one of the kidnapped scientists taken by the villain to build the spider. She’s posing as a prostitute at the local brothel because of course she is. How else to have her slink about the film in low-cut late 1800s women’s underthings?
At one point, the men rescue Rita (Hayek) from the brothel and board Artemus’ train, The Wanderer. She asks the men for help in saving her father, but West is reluctant, thinking she will be a distraction, which is itself a disturbing word to describe a women begging for help. Of course, this is resolved by having her kiss him, which is what literally every single female who has more than one word to say to West ends up doing. For some reason, Artemus is jealous and pulls her away as she sexually eyes West. Despite the motivations of her character, it’s what happens next that is insane. She flirtatiously explains that she’s tired and needs to go to bed, something that right away smacks unbelievable considering the ordeal they just escaped and the situation they are all in. But fine, she asks for something to wear because the undergarments she is already in are clearly no good for sleeping (sarcasm). Artemus quickly offers, but West cuts in and tells her he has something just right for her. Okay, so the joke is set up. Let’s see where it goes.
The men recline on sofas that are opposite each other but offer viewing to the next room where Rita is changing. West is focused on the case at hand while Artemus has his mind on Rita, thinking she needs a bedside heater. West confirms his suspicion of female distraction by pointing that out, that Artemus is thinking of the girl and not their mission, even though they are minutes from sleeping and the last person they just spoke to was Rita. What was he thinking?
Right on cue, in walks Rita wearing one of West’s one piece full body undergarments that is of course, at least two sizes too big. Her hair is down, the buttons are undone and she wants to say thanks one more time for saving her. She then turns around and we see that the rear flap to the underwear is undone and the entirety of her rear is on display. See how that paid off? But it’s not done yet. The boys, invigorated by the site, call out to her and she spins back. The proceed to say how the outfit is most becoming, and lovely, and that they hope it’s not too breezy back there, but never once try to save her future embarrassment by telling her the flap is down. She smiles tenderly, thanks them again and turns back as the camera leers more closely on her exposed bum just in case we didn’t get it the first time.
So let’s start with the set up. Does West know the underwear flap will be open? Yes. Probably. But that doesn’t much matter. The question is why? What purpose would it serve him even if he did know? Is he so desperate to see a partially nude women that he would allow her to wear it? Is he so self-absorbed in his own kicks that he would let a women he just met, rescued from a brothel, searching for her kidnapped father, be the target of a childish prank just to see her bottom for a few seconds?
But what can we learn about Rita as well? (Or at least how the filmmakers portray her). Does she know the flap is open? If she does (which by the way it’s played seems unlikely), then what is she doing? What purpose does it serve to reveal her rear end? Is this an invitation? More likely, she does not know, which begs the question, how? How does she not know? To put on such a garment, she would have to fully unbutton the front and step into the legs while pulling the sleeves on. She would clearly see the enormous gap in the back. But no. Rita does not see because the joke demands it.
But the real question is why come out again at all? Why does she go to her room, change into the revealing undergarment and then come back to say thank you one more time? Story-wise, it’s entirely unnecessary, but that’s not the intention. The makers of this movie wanted a moment when Selma Hayek, an attractive, buxom movie star could show her, um assets once again. Like the conversation above, this is a moment that exists solely for the gag and nothing else. And if I really want to be critical, which I do, the flap itself is not even in the right place. Given that Rita is a full head shorter than West, the hole would more likely be somewhere around her knees, but then the joke wouldn’t work and I’d have nothing to write about.
1) It Thinks Everyone is Stupid
I really enjoy a good sci-fi adventure. If you make me believe in the world you’ve created, I’m in. Deviate from that even just a little, and I’m out. It doesn’t take long to be ‘out’ in this film, especially with the aforementioned 80ft, steampunk, mechanical spider in Monument Valley running about that no one notices until it is literally attacking the city. As peculiar as that is, the even more ridiculous moment comes after West and Artemus are captured by Loveless and instead of being straight up murdered and buried in the desert for the buzzards to discover, the mad genius fits them with large circular neck collars and puts them in a small trap that, if they cross, will trigger magnetically-attracted razor disks fired from a nearby steampunk catapult to slice off their heads. You might want to read that sentence again. Either way, it’s basically a James Bond villain’s wet-dream. And not phallic at all.
Like most of Hollywood, the makers of Wild Wild West have no idea how magnets work, only that when they need them to do something, that is what they do. Naturally, West steps out of the trap because rational thought has no place in this story. The machine fires two large spinning disks that take off after the now running West and Artemus. In this world, magnets can turn and loop and even miss, circle back and try again. The men, running, mind you, are able to keep a distance from the magnetically attracted razor disks, and I don’t know if you have any experience with powerful magnetics, but they attract at high speed. Very high speed. But fine, let’s live in that world. What about these magnetic neck collars?
They attract the disks once the men step out of the trap and trigger the firing mechanism, meaning the collars are the opposite polarity of the disks. Yet the whole time the men are wearing the collars, they don’t interact with each other until Artemus smashes one with a rock and they suddenly are powerful enough to attract to each other, even from several meters apart. Stuck together, Artemus presumes the damage somehow “reversed the polarity of the magnet”. Is that so? If the attraction is strong enough to attract the collars from that distance, then the opposite would be true, so before he struck the collar, they would have been constantly pushed apart. And let’s not even get to the belt buckles, buttons, pockets watches and maybe even tooth fillings that would rush at hyper speed to these magnets as well. Heck, at one point, West puts his boot on Artemus’ chest to pull them apart, which suddenly attracts the hidden knife concealed in the toe but not the bullets tucked into the holster on his waist. And how about weight? Have you ever carried a big magnet? They’re really heavy. Now wrap it around your neck and run. And wait. Did those razor disks things explode when they hit each other? Yes they did. So they slice off your head and blow up? They didn’t do that the first time we saw them at the start of the film. What’s going on?
Movies can be fun. They transport us to different worlds and allow us to use our imaginations in wonderful ways. Suspension of disbelief is a term often used to let viewers enter some of these worlds and allow certain things to occur without question. There’s nothing wrong with that, and is required for some stories to work. Wild Wild West isn’t about that. It’s a poorly executed series of gags that simply don’t work. Consider the opening moment when West is having a romantic encounter with a stunningly attractive woman in a half-filled water tank. There is a peep hole (which negates the usefulness of a water tank) that gives him a view of the street below where a gang he has been scouting for days arrives.
This woman, fully nude and inviting him to sex, is passionately kissing him, but West is more interested in the goings on below. As he peers out the peephole, he separates from the girl’s kiss but continues to elaborately contort his lips and mouth as if he still was, seemingly unaware he’s let go of the one person he should be entertaining. And this is what Wild Wild West does to its audience. At the start, we hope to embrace the story, but it pretends to like us and then goes on without a care, wholly and forever abandoning us in the process, contorting its lips as if still doing its job.