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WILD WILD WEST

by: James Berardinelli

The Beverly Hillbillies. The Flintstones. The Mod Squad. McHale's Navy. The Avengers. These are just a few of the perennial TV favorites that Hollywood has turned into big-screen abominations. The list grows longer every year, as the number of TV-to-movie adaptations expands. The latest example of a popular weekly program to be zombified by the film industry is The Wild Wild West, a '60s show that mixed Western motifs with James Bond gadgetry. The Wild Wild West ran for five years between 1965 and 1969, spanning 104 episodes. When it was cancelled at the end of the 1969 season, it was not because of poor ratings, but because of network attempts to reduce the amount of violence on the tube. The adventures of Secret Service agents James West (originally played by Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (the late Ross Martin) were popular enough with audiences to warrant two (hideous) made-for-TV movie sequels: The Wild Wild West Revisited (1979) and More Wild Wild West (1980). Martin's death in 1981 precluded further adventures.

During its syndication heyday in the '70s and early '80s, The Wild Wild West could be found in almost every U.S. city at some time during the day. It was a non-network staple, often eating up an hour in an early evening or post prime time slot. The reason for its popularity is not hard to understand: it featured two likable heroes, a lighthearted tone that never quite strayed into the realm of camp, and guaranteed at least five or six action sequences per show. These days, however, The Wild Wild West is hard to find on TV. Perhaps the release of the movie will change that, and the program will find a new generation of fans. Those who have seen both incarnations will shake their heads with bewilderment at how a seemingly sure-fire prospect like The Wild Wild West could be turned into such a stillborn motion picture.

Hollywood needs to remember that, while a movie is not a sum of its parts, those parts have to work individually for the production as a whole to have a chance. With the exception of Kevin Kline, who has a double role as Artemus Gordon and President Grant, very little in Wild Wild West (note that the "the" has been dropped) is successful. Popular actor and all-around nice guy Will Smith is horribly miscast as Jim West. Kenneth Branagh, the talented British actor/director who is taking a break between Shakespeare adaptations (his last one, Hamlet, came out in 1997; his next, Love's Labors Lost, is due out later this year), presents villain Arliss Lovelace as a deliciously over-the-top and legless version of Snidely Whiplash with an accent that makes Strom Thurmond sound like a Yankee. Salma Hayek is wasted in the thankless supporting role of The Love Interest. The easy camaraderie that characterized the West/Gordon partnership in the TV series is completely absent. The preposterous plot never bothers to make sense in its quest to take the movie into the realm of science fiction by using big-time special effects. The humor is only occasionally funny and the action sequences seem tired. Finally, the music, which sounds like a half-baked retread of The Magnificent Seven (not surprising, since the composer, Elmer Bernstein, authored both scores), incorporates the TV show's signature tune only once (and then for all of 15 seconds).

The story introduces us to James West and Artemus Gordon, two mismatched, post-Civil War era Secret Service agents who are reluctantly partnered to stop an assassination attempt against President Grant. Gordon, a master of disguises, prefers sneaky tactics to physical violence, and always has a new gadget up his sleeve (think of him as Wild Wild West's version of 007's Q). West, on the other hand, has a tendency to "shoot first, shoot later, shoot some more, and, when everyone's dead, try to ask a question or two." The threat to Grant comes

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