Buried in this god-awful disaster of a movie is a germ of an inkling of an iota of a great idea. It is not the idea of making a big blockbuster out of the great old 1960s TV show "The Wild Wild West," an idea which can, at best, be described as tiresomely uninspired. Nor is there brilliance in transforming the image of the lead character just so that they could build the role around star-of-the-moment Will Smith. But out of that horribly perverse example of Hollywood commercial packaging there is an intriguing premise, which naturally seems to have slipped past all involved without a second glance. What if the best, brightest and most intrepid government agent working in post-Civil War America was, indeed, a black man? Realistically, how would an African-American, functioning in a repressive, racist society, where even the most liberal thinker would see him as a second-class citizen, indeed, a second class human being, be able to not only outsmart the bad guys, but to impress even the skeptical good guys? It is an intriguing idea because, on the one hand, such an agent would not be suspected of being a threat and, on the other hand, he would have to overcome so many more barriers than a white man would ever face. He would be both invisible and yet stand out like the proverbial sore thumb just about anywhere he went. He'd be constantly fighting two battles. Such a film could be thrilling and funny, yet something rare: original.
"The Wild Wild West" TV show itself was all those things: it was highly derivative of both the traditional western and the then-fresh James Bond-style spy movie -- with more than a little bit of Batman-style comic book campiness kicked in -- yet it was ingenious in the way it melded those mythic genres into a one-of-a-kind series. There was never anything quite like "The Wild Wild West" and never anything since -- including this disastrous 1997 movie.
Everything about WILD WILD WEST, the movie, is just plain bad: tacky special effects; clumsy direction; an embarrassing screenplay; plus a fine, bewildered cast wasted in totally unworkable roles. But as bad as everything else is, the base rot of WWW goes directly to its reworked premise. No matter how open minded one might be, or how much one prides oneself on being socially color blind, there is just no way to honestly accept replacing Robert Conrad, TV's James West, with Will Smith. The time and the place dictate that James West be a white male -- unless, the filmmakers acknowledge and embrace the incongruity and use it for a real purpose.
Yet, the filmmakers want it both ways: the audience is expected to be able to ignore Smith's skin color, while at the same time the entire plot is based on his confrontation with a white racist trying to reestablish Confederate power and seize control of the U.S. government. How can you respect or believe in a film or filmmakers that get all preachy about the evils of racism while all along dealing with the issue with absolutely no respect for historical honesty? It is not clear if having Smith play James West as a cocky, street smart, John Shaft-style character was intended to be a joke, social commentary or just absurd politically correct pandering to black audiences, but it is clear that it does not work. The most outrageously unbelievable thing about WILD WILD WEST is not the wildly improbable sci-fi inventions but that the Smith character actually makes it to the end of the film without being lynched. It's not that the anachronism of a cocksure 20th century black man confronting 19th century bigotry isn't workable, because that very time-warp racial comedy had already been done with much greater success in the Mel Brooks classic, BLAZING SADDLES. Unlike WWW, Brooks and company realized the sheer idiocy of the premise, yet used that to mock both the black and the white stereotypes with equal glee.
Where BLAZING SADDLES is an honest farce, WILD WILD WEST is dishonest and cowardly. All involved probably thought they were being pretty daring by flaunting convention and hiring Smith, but they did not hire Will Smith the African American, they hired Will Smith the action hero movie star. They built WILD WILD WEST around Smith's race, but only to exploit his contemporary Hollywood image, even to the point of letting him create and perform a totally inappropriate (and totally bad) rap song at the end. You can sense the film exploiting both Smith's star image and his race, while not wishing to risk challenging either. The film tries to reinvent "The Wild Wild West" TV show, but the changes are literally skin deep. To really explore and compare racism in America by blending the attitudes of two different American centuries would have been too wild wild of an idea for these timid timid filmmakers.
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