Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:45 - Released 6/30/99

Now, this in an interesting concept. A black man in 1869, in the wild, wild West, fighting crime against angry white southerners who just lost the Civil War. And the final "lynch" pin: he's a Secret Service man working for the president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.

I doubt it.

Race relations aside, the decision on the part of director Barry Sonnenfeld to hire Will Smith to star in the latest TV-show-inspired film, Wild Wild West, was not a bad one. He's got tons of charm and a good sense of timing, and, frankly, the whole script is so far-fetched that the issue of Smith's race is the least unlikely thing in the movie. The presence of Kevin Kline doesn't hurt anything either, and Kenneth Branagh is completely over the top as the villain. Whether the film bears any resemblance to the original TV show starring Robert Conrad, however, is debatable.

In a generally preposterous story penned by Brent Maddock, Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, and S.S. Wilson, Jim West (Smith) and Artemus Gordon (Kline) are hired by the president (also Kline) to search out the evil mastermind, Arliss Lovelace (Branagh). Angry from the outcome of the war (especially since he lost half his body in that outcome), Lovelace has kidnapped all the greatest scientists of the time, and is using them to help him build lots of ingenious inventions so he can carry out his evil plans. His many toys include a precursor to the modern tank, a huge, walking spider, and a multi-purpose automatic wheelchair. With the aid of his pal, Confederate General "Blood Bath" McGrath (Ted Levine), and a small army of leftover rebel soldiers who can't give up the fight, he seeks to kidnap the president and take control of the country.

West and Gordon are both good at what they do, but the trouble is, they don't like each other very much. West, a gunslinging cowboy, prefers to shoot first and ask questions later. Gordon, an avid inventor, is more inclined to use gadgets and disguises to accomplish his task. Always trying to rise above the need for physical conflict, he wants to think his way out of trouble. To make matters worse, the guys must compete for the affections of Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek), the attractive daughter of one of the scientists, who insists on coming along to help. But even with their conflict of styles and the distraction of Rita, they are forced to overcome their differences. Eventually they learn to depend on each other, using both forms of investigation to succeed.

Talents like Smith, Kline, and Branagh are a tremendous asset to a film like this. They take a mediocre script and make it an enjoyable movie. With as many plot holes and contrivances as it has, Wild Wild West is not going to win any awards, but the sheer fun generated by the characterizations will provide enough entertainment value for the average moviegoer. ****

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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