Thursday, August 29, 2019

How To Improve WILD WILD WEST (1999)

For the 200th episode of Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, our mighty host decided we ought to do Wild Wild West, the Will Smith and Kevin Kline vehicle based on the 1960s TV series). I'd only seen some bits of the movie on HBO at my parents' house long ago and I'm an aficionado of steampunk, so this was something I wanted to see. Here's the podcast. Although I found much of the film hilarious--the only member of the crew to do so--I admit there were some areas that needed improvement.

So here's how I would have improved Wild Wild West while keeping as much of the film intact as possible. Here there be spoilers for a movie that's 20-odd years old, so be ye warned...

*Instead of the prologue with the scientist being killed by the flying blade pursuing the magnetized collar around his neck, have a flashback to the end of the Civil War in which Confederate General "Bloodbath" McGrath (Ted Levine) and Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) attack the free black town of New Liberty with their steampunk war machines. Fortunately a nearby detachment of black cavalry including Jim West (Will Smith) is nearby and is able to relieve the town. In the process Loveless loses the lower half of his body and this can be played for laughs. I'm thinking some kind of explosion triggered by West blows Loveless in half, with body parts flying through the air.

(Given how the podcast group objected to the mood whiplash between silliness and serious James Bond-type spycraft, combining a massacre of civilians by evil racists with said racists getting hurt in hilarious ways would be tricky to pull off. Still it's probably doable.)

*Trim down the opening credits. They're more entertaining than the over-long opening credits of Spawn, but they go on and on and on...

*The first chunk or so of the film is generally good, with a lot of goofy humor, fight scenes, and the introduction of steampunk techie Artemis Gordon (Kevin Kline) but it reveals one of the film's major flaws. Many of the jokes in the film are funny, but they go on too long. We're talking Family Guy level of jokes going on too long here. The scene where West is having sex with a woman in a town's water tower is amusing, but the joke about him pretending to kiss her when he's really kissing empty air and she's getting progressively more annoyed goes on much longer than it needs to. The point has been made; let's get to the gunfight in the bar.

*In general, more practical effects. A lot of the CGI in the film is simply bad.

*Nixing the opening with the fleeing scientist losing his head means we lose the "that's a man's head" scene between Gordon and West, but perhaps someone else can lose their head instead. Somebody at the bar at the beginning, perhaps? McGrath is there and he's intent on running nitroglycerin to Loveless in New Orleans, so perhaps one of his minions' corpses is captured? That scene was pretty funny and it would be a shame to lose it.

*Considering how one of the guards on Loveless's estate accosts West and berates him using racist language (calling him "boy") when he sees him skulking around outside, I would expect him to have a much more hostile reception inside. Instead none of the Confederate die-hards attending his ball seem to care that a black man (and a member of the current U.S. Army no less) is roaming about armed and talking to white people as an equal rather than a servant, at least until he gropes a white woman he thinks is Gordon in disguise. Given how he absolutely refused to go as Gordon's manservant--his explanation allows for both humor and to show how incredibly degrading that would be. Perhaps instead he could have gone in disguise as some kind of African prince, Coming To America style? Ex-Confederates would disdain former slaves but might think somewhat better of a wealthy foreigner.

*When we first meet Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek) she's being held prisoner by some scantily-clad entertainers. The vibe I was getting was that Loveless had hired prostitutes to keep his captive scientists entertained, with Rita pretending to be a more respectable actress or singer who refused to participate. The idea that Loveless is using the carrot as well as the stick to control the scientists--and especially the particular nature of the carrot--could be played for more comedy.

*Although most of the group objected to the scenes where Loveless needles West about being black and West in turn needles Loveless about being disabled, a lot of that I actually found pretty funny. Not only does it appeal to my sense of humor, which relies heavily on wordplay and tasteless, shocking comments, but it would be realistic for its time. Loveless, being a Confederate die-hard, would be incredibly racist, while West would retaliate using the most obvious avenue, especially given how sensitive a subject this is for Loveless.

*The way they talk to each other implies they've interacted in the past, although there's really no reason for them to have. Perhaps they fight, or at least talk to each other, in the new prologue?

*That said, the attempted lynching of West that's played for comedy (!) doesn't go well at all. Gordon deliberately set it up (!!) to distract the guests from his searching Loveless's estate to find the captive scientists and it does allow for some amusing Will Smith jokes, but they're not going to be letting a man they intend to murder talk for so long like that. I would have made it so Gordon just needs to distract the party guests long enough to rescue Rita and then the two of them quickly intervene to keep West from being killed. Searching the estate would take hours and West would be long dead by then, but springing Rita from Loveless's sex-dungeon bedroom and then saving West is much less risky. Later in the film, West can in turn put Gordon at gross risk of bodily harm that's both funny and makes the point that what nearly happens to West is serious Dude Not Funny territory. Given how West absolutely refuses to pretend to be Gordon's servant we know that enslavement left a mark on him even though he escaped as a child, and lynching would be a much more fearful possibility for him than for a white man like Gordon.

*West references having been raised by Indians after escaping slavery as a child, but nothing about Native Americans happens at all even though they're in the Old West. His revealing how he was separated from his parents and how they were killed by McGrath at New Liberty was necessary plot-wise to get Gordon to stop feuding with him, but there was no need for the Indian back-story unless it was relevant--say if his adoptive Indian tribe showed up to help fight Loveless or something. I'd just nix that completely because bringing in an Indian war party on top of everything else would make the whole thing needlessly complicated.

(Unless of course West sets up Gordon to be scalped or undergo something like the "sun vow" scene from A Man Called Horse in revenge for Gordon trying to get him lynched earlier. That might actually be funny.)

And that turn ties in with my next point...

*Loveless's plan to divide up the United States between various former colonial powers makes things needlessly complicated and raises some awkward questions--namely an alliance of Mexico and various European powers supporting a terrorist to break up the United States would be grounds for immediate war if it went wrong. And given how President Grant knows the various European countries are involved, that's the obvious sequel and people would be wondering. I'd have just stuck with him trying to kidnap and/or kill President Grant, perhaps using McGrath and his Confederate die-hards as cannon fodder to punish them for losing the war. After all, I did like that Loveless hated the Confederates for losing the war and making his crippling ultimately pointless as much as he hated the Union for crippling him--it shows how much of a narcissist he is. Loveless's betrayal of McGrath and the murder of his men could be here instead of much earlier at the estate.

*Given how much West needles Gordon about dressing in drag for his missions, West having to dress in drag to rescue Grant and Gordon is an amusing ironic punishment. However, like many of the film's jokes, the scene goes for way too long. Yes, Will Smith pretending to be a sassy belly dancer in a veil to secretly unchain some people is funny, but get to the point already.

*The big reveal at the end that Rita's "father" isn't really her father but her husband would've been a lot funnier if the actor was someone younger and better-looking than Gary Cervantes. As someone pointed out on the podcast, perhaps Antonio Banderas? Given how West and Gordon are competing for Rita's affections the entire time, I get they were going for the shocking reveal she was married, but it would have been funnier if it was to a man widely-regarded as a sex symbol in a way Kevin Kline is not. And as they leave at the end, perhaps Mr. Escobar can wink at them? That would be pretty funny, plus it shows he's perceptive enough to know that his wife had been playing them the entire time and he's gloating that at the end of the day, it's him she's going home with. Maybe that'd make him a bit of an Ungrateful Bastard, but it'd be funny.

Hopefully all these suggestions would tighten the film up and fix some plot holes all while preserving the good bits.

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