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Is the much-hated Will Smith action movie Wild Wild West actually pretty good?

Two men fly on a contraption in Wild Wild West.
Warner Bros.

Will Smith seems to be back on top of the world, where he rightfully deserves to be. His latest effort, Bad Boys: Ride or Die, received good reviews and has grossed almost $300 million worldwide, and his reputation seems to have successfully survived the events of 2022. Is it a surprise that Smith endured? He’s survived far worse; after all, 2022 wasn’t the first time many doubted his career could recover. In 1999, Smith went through another difficult period, not because of a slap but because of a movie so infamous that it nearly derailed his hard-earned fame completely. The movie was, of course, Wild Wild West.

Directed by Smith’s usual collaborator, Barry Sonnenfeld, and (very) loosely based on the 1960s TV series The Wild Wild West, the film stars Smith as Jim West, a U.S. Secret Service agent who joins forces with another agent, odd inventor Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), to protect the country from the evil Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh).

A unique take on the steampunk genre, Wild Wild West is true to its name: it’s wild, ridiculously dumb, bloated, overblown, sexist, confusing, and an undeniable good time. Indeed, Wild Wild West is far better than you remember. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not a “good” movie, at least not strictly speaking. But who said a bad movie can have genuine entertainment value?

Steampunk heaven

A giant mechanical spider against a sunset in Wild Wild West.
Warner Bros.

If you, like me, are a fan of the steampunk subgenre, then Wild Wild West is the perfect movie for you. Steampunk incorporates the aesthetics of classic 19th-century settings, mainly Victorian England and the Old American West, and combines them with retro-futuristic technology based on steam-powered machinery. The result is a unique subgenre that deserves far more attention from the mainstream.

A few movies have attempted to incorporate steampunk sensibilities — the most successful are usually within the animated medium. Films like Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky, Disney’s Treasure Planet, and Focus’ 9 are worthy yet severely undervalued efforts that do the steampunk sensibilities justice. However, none of them were able to capture audiences’ interest — in fact, they are considered flops, especially compared to their studio’s more successful efforts. Thus, this fascinating and distinctive subgenre has been unfairly relegated to the background.

Wild Wild West (10/10) Movie CLIP - Getting a Whoopin' (1999) HD

Indeed, steampunk is so underappreciated by the mainstream that Wild Wild West arguably remains the best-known example in modern cinema. Yet, as sad as that fact is, at least Wild Wild West is a remarkable example of it. The film might fail as an action-adventure comedy, but as an example of steampunk, it passes with flying colors. From Gordon’s many contraptions — flying machines, mechanical monocycles, curious trains, and the like — to the piece de resistance, Loveless’ giant mechanical spider, arguably the film’s most significant contribution, Wild Wild West is a steampunk fan’s dream.

The film treats its unique technology with a mix of admiration and absurdism, a self-aware approach it should’ve applied to the narrative, too. For all its flaws, Wild Wild West looks incredible: the production design is detailed, and the visual effects remarkable, creating a fascinating depiction of the American West unlike anything we’ve seen before or since. The world feels lived-in, enthralling without ever becoming inviting.

More importantly, steampunk is vital to Wild Wild West; whereas films like the extravagant Poor Things or Disney’s underrated gem Atlantis: The Lost Empire merely use steampunk as a visual tool, Wild Wild West celebrates and recognizes its tremendous appeal, both visual and narrative. It is the very embodiment of steampunk, showing a commitment to it that we seldom see in mainstream cinema.

‘Heaven knows we haven’t lost our sense of humor.’

Kenneth Branagh as Arliss Loveless aboard a train in Wild Wild West.
Warner Bros.

Beyond its gift to the steampunk subgenre, Wild Wild West should be commended for its valiantly committed performance. God knows the movie is lacking on several levels, but at least the actors are having fun. Will Smith is his usual charming self, Kevin Kline is a delightful if somewhat grating oddball, and Salma Hayek brings admirable dignity to a role that, like many of her early movies, requires nothing from her but to be beautiful and easily impressed.

Yet, the undeniable star of this misguided romp is none other than Oscar winner Kenneth Branagh. Now, a film set in the American West about a lunatic, racist engineer launching a crusade against President Ulysses S. Grant would be the last place one might expect to find cinema’s greatest Shakespeare exponent of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Yet, here Branagh is, using an exaggerated accent he surely picked from some amateur community theater play in Topeka, Kansas, with a beard that Wes Bentley plagiarized for his Seneca Crane and a steam-powered wheelchair because he, naturally, is missing one lung, a spleen, a bladder, two legs, 35 feet of small intestine, and his ability to reproduce, all in the name of the South.

Wild Wild West (3/10) Movie CLIP - Loveless Comes Out (1999) HD

And Branagh kills it. He’s out there, delivering lines like “I like to beat my feet on the Mississippi mud!” while elevated by four mechanical spider-like legs with all the conviction of a stage thespian reciting Macbeth. Branagh is living for every minute of this overblown mess, and his excitement is contagious. That’s what Wild Wild West has going for it. In other bad movies, you can tell an actor is there for the paycheck, whether it’s Harrison Ford bumbling through lines about “the Force” or Michael Caine looking half-bored, half-embarrassed throughout Jaws: The Revenge. But everyone in Wild Wild West looks amused by the ridiculousness, and the movie is stronger for it.

We need movies like Wild Wild West for the same reason fart jokes are funny; sometimes, it’s nice to chuckle at something stupid. The film is a curious one; it knows it’s dumb, and while it doesn’t embrace it, it’s also not embarrassed by it. Wild Wild West is the best kind of stupid: loud and shameless without becoming rude or annoying. It’s a two-hour joke without a punchline, but the delivery is so awkward and amusing that you can’t help but laugh, be it at it or with it. If you like steampunk, sit back and enjoy the production because it doesn’t get any better, I fear. If you just want to pass the time, then do that and maybe laugh once or twice, intentionally or otherwise.

Wild Wild West is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

David Caballero
David is a Mexican freelance writer with a deep appreciation for words. After three years in the cold world of Marketing…
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