Year Released: 1999
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 107 minutes
Click to Expand Credits:
Kids, I’m here today to warn you of a new film genre. It’s called the Warner Bros. Summer Thermonuclear Bomb. Forewarned, you may avoid the dangerous effects of the studio’s next barrage. This lesson comes none too soon as the enemy is about to complete the box set for its “Trilogy of Suck-Ass” that began with “Batman and Robin”, continued with “The Avengers” and about to darken our screens with “Wild, Wild West”.
What are the effects of this weapon? Glad you asked. When dropped at the beginning of some summer weekend, it snuffs out a variety of films as it decimates around 3000 movie screens, leaving millions of Americans disoriented, disappointed, and shy of around 8 bucks.
How do you identify this weapon? Glad you asked. Look for the following characteristics:
1) Usually based upon a kitsch-laden action/comedy TV show from the ’60′s. 2) Has a star-studded cast. ^ 3) Budget over $100 million, American. ^ 4) Non-stop CGI. ^ 5) When in doubt, spend more on CGI. ^ 6) Isn’t funny and doesn’t make a lot of sense (Presumably edited by monkeys). ^ …and of course, ^ 7) It was released by Warner Bros. ^
It also features what I like to call “bloated whimsy”. What was meant as a throwaway gag in the script is painstakingly rendered by a team of computer artists over months until it ‘s driven into the ground from the pressure of all the effort and focus. The humor is also crushed under the weight of too much art direction. Robin Williams can be whimsical. A Silicon Graphics workstation can’t.
Let’s now have a look at this year’s bomb. In 1869, U.S. Marshal James West (Will Smith) is on the trail of General “Bloodbath” McGrath (Ted Levine) for killing everyone in a town of freed slaves, including West’s parents. West is the shoot first, shoot-some-more-later kind of guy. Also on the trail is U.S. Marshall Artemis Gordon (Kevin Kline), a compulsive inventor, disguise artist, and cross-dresser. Assigned to work together by President Ulysses S. Grant, the two soon find that McGrath is actually working for Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a presumed-dead demented genius of the Confederacy with a crazy plan to bust up the United States. Saved after a near fatal explosion by foreign nationals, he’s literally half the man he used to be, and dammit, he’s going to take it out on everyone. Hilarity ensues.
OK, what’s wrong with this picture?
The original show followed the adventures of West (Robert Conrad) and Gordon (Ross Martin) as Secret Service agents as a western spoof of the James Bond series. Gordon would often create a series of speculative gadgets that could eventually prove useful. The show was pretty good, but hasn’t been in heavy circulation for years. It never had the fan following of either the campy “Batman” show or “The Avengers”.
The producers (listed are 2 producers, 5 executive producers, and 1 co-producer) have taken the basic pitch and put Will Smith in the role of West. Now, you may not know this, but Will Smith is, uh,… BLACK. Yes, it’s true. Now, a black lawman has to deal with the race issue in 1969, much less 1869. A black man firing weapons and kicking ass will have to deal with a LOT of race issues in 1869. To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t shy away from this. West receives a LOT of racial slurs, particularly from Dr. Loveless. To respond to this, West makes a LOT of cripple jokes to the not so kind Doctor.
In addition to the often ugly repartee, Dr. Loveless murdered not just the town where West’s parents lived, but a large group of soldiers and nearly another town in the movie. I don’t care how much of a Southern gentleman he appears to be, he’s a sociopathic spree killer.
So we have a light comedy full of racial slurs and cripple jokes where the hero hunts down the mass-murderer who killed his parents. This is not unlike a wacky spy comedy where a U.S. spy hunts down Dr. Josef Mengele who may have experimented on the spy’s parents during the Holocaust. It makes it hard to keep a light tone.
Another problem is the gadgets. Often in “Star Trek: Next Generation”, the writers would get lazy and Data and/or Geordie would suddenly invent whatever piece of technology then needed to solve a problem. Gordon does the same thing late in this film when in minutes he develops a major piece of technology that won’t exist for another 40 years.
Aside from the pesky problems of tone and lazy writing, the whole move is a little choppy. The main characters have intricate back-stories that are expressed only by incomplete references along the way. In the original series, Dr. Miguelito Loveless was a scheming dwarf. In the movie, Dr. Arliss Loveless had some unspecified position in the Confederate power structure, until the Doctor was torn in half by an explosion near the end of the war. Was West involved? Who knows? The two seem to know each other, but we don’t know why. It’s also difficult to follow all the fight scenes and determine where different characters are physically in relation to each other.
Now studios make mistakes all the time (ALL the time). Look at Universal Studios. They made a bunch of GREAT films last year (“Fear and Loathing…”, “Babe: Pig in the City”, “Out of Sight”) but couldn’t market them to the public to save their lives (or their jobs). Warner Bros., however, has made nearly the exact same mistakes THREE YEARS IN A ROW, WITH THEIR BIG SUMMER MOVIES. Do the heads of the studio hate us? Or, do they just not know what they’re doing? “The Matrix” had around 9 or so time zones and Joel Silver to shield the production while they shot in Australia. “Eyes Wide Shut” had 8 time zones and Stanley Kubrick. The Trilogy of Suck-ass didn’t have both distance and a strong producer to back them up. The results in each case are nearly unreleasable.
What was the usual solution to any problems? Throw more money at it. Maybe all the studios and filmmakers need to learn that just because you can have all the CGI effects you want, doesn’t mean you should. The first “Austin Powers” cost something like $12 million and even the sequel cost less than $40 million. “Big Daddy”, Sony’s big summer release probably cost less. Would another $40 million in special effects improve either film? No. I’m concerned about the upcoming “Mystery Men”. It’s based on a small, hilarious independent comic book and should have been filmed for a moderate budget and looked a little cheesy, like “Buckaroo Banzai”. Instead, it looks like the “Batman” movie, and has an enormous cast. I’m afraid that, like the Box Set of Crap, the jokes can’t survive all that neo-noir-on-crack art direction.
Hopefully you’ve learned something by this. If you know the warning signs, you can avoid the fallout from the dreaded Warner bomb. Maybe the studio has learned something too, if only my name to prevent me from ever getting real press credentials (Not that I’ll let a little thing like that stop me).
Posted on July 5, 1999 in Reviews by Ron Wells
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- THE LOVELESS (DVD)
- CALLING ALL NYU TISCH SCHOOL OF THE ARTS ALUMNI
- DEAD WEST
- TOP CINEMATOGRAPHERS TALK SHOP AT DIGITAL VIDEO EXPO WEST
- WEST BANK BROOKLYN
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