By DANNY BIEDERMAN
SPECIAL TO THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
(c) 1999 D. Biederman, LA Times
The ads for the new movie "Wild Wild West" speak the truth. It is "a whole new West"-- because this "West" is a whole lot different from the popular 1960s TV series on which it is based.
Both versions follow the fantastic adventures of two agents who, on orders from President Ulysses Grant, battle exotic villains in the days of the Old West. The main difference is that for this new train ride, the soul of the original series got left behind. That could be worse than Austin Powers losing his mojo!
"The Wild Wild West," the classic western/spy series aired from 1965 to 1969 on CBS rode high in its during the incredible 'spy boom' of the '60s. Sold to network executives as 'James Bond in the West', Michael Garrison's action-filled concept combined engaging performances, imaginative art direction and a marvelous musical score with clever scripts delivering espionage thrills and tongue-in-cheek humor within a Jules Verne motif.
Although the new film's basic framework, setting and mechanics closely match those of the old show, itseems to have lost its compass, straying from key elements that helped make the original vehicle work so well.
In the Old 'West', Jim and Artemus Had Style, Grace
The true soul of "The Wild Wild West" TV series was the friendship of the two heroes, Secret Service agents James T. West and Artemus Gordon. West, the smartly attired undercover man, was portrayed with charm and charisma by Robert Conrad; Gordon, an inventor and disguise expert, was played with warmth, humor and verve by Ross Martin. The friendship between their characters ran deep, filled with a profound mutual respect and caring.
As enacted in the movie by Will Smith and Kevin Kline, the relationship between Jim and Artemus is marked by annoyance, irritability, disrespect, even name-calling. This animosity has been generated by yanking the characters in opposite directions: Smith's West is shoot-from-the-hip, while Kline's Gordon is prissy and methodical. There's a "dumbing down" of the characters, leaving us with wild pranks and a juvenile spat over the proper density of a woman's breast.
TV's West and Gordon had neither the time nor inclination for such foolishness. Suave and sophisticated, they maintained a good-natured sense of humor, all the while investing in "a stake in the future for [the American] people."
Conrad's West appreciated the clever life-saving gadgets created by Artemus, while Smith's West belittles them with vile language, demanding that Gordon "stop messin' with my stuff!" This movie may be a prequel to the TV show (it's set five years earlier), but there's no way that these characters could possibly evolve (i.e. mature) into the classy gents of the original.
There are also strong differences between the movie villain, paraplegic Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), and the TV original, Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless. A recurring role delightfully performed by Michael Dunn, Miguelito held a depth and complexity that does not exist in his movie counterpart. Dunn's Loveless was not merely mad or evil; he was a "brilliant, twisted little man" filled with contradictions. His 3-foot, 10-inch height belying his incredible genius, Miguelito was a talented painter, sculptor, scientist and surgeon who, in each of his adventures, displayed a beautiful singing voice. But when he didn't get his way, he behaved like a whining, spoiled child. Dr. Loveless yearned to improve the world for all its children, and would even save the life of a drowning fly, yet he wouldn't hesitate to blow up 5,000 innocent people in order to succeed in his evil schemes. Obsessed with eliminating Jim West, who "meddled" in all of his plans, Miguelito nonetheless afforded "my friend, Mr. West," the utmost respect and hospitality before ordering his execution.
Far from the respect shown between these two TV adversaries, the now West and Loveless indulge in the crudest of exchanges. When Branagh's villain delivers his ugly, racial epithets to Smith's West, our hero stoops just as low, firing off a litany of insulting "handicap jokes" at his enemy, who uses a wheelchair. Conrad's West (and even Dunn's Loveless) had too much class to take such cheap shots.
While Smith shines in his performance, his casting in a role that requires him to interact as a black man in all-white Southern high society, circa 1869, forces a racial element into the film story, which of course never existed in the TV series, whose leads were both white. The film's race-based subplot is never fully embraced, though, reducing this more realistic and potentially emotional aspect of the movie to an awkward distraction.
While Conrad's secret agent maintained the cover of a "fancy, high-livin' dude with a private railroad car," Smith's operative must resort to hiding behind the guise of a post-slave-era Negro in order to maneuver his way through redneck society. It's a half-baked device played mostly for laughs and apparently designed to make the story plausible, but it works against the grain of this chosen TV series concept.
A Tendency to Dip into Low Humor
Further distancing the movie from its source material is the film's propensity for sex humor, breast jokes to heavy crossdressing and gay innuendo. It also pulls out all the stops on special effects action, propelling concepts from the TV show to stratospheric proportions. While both these approaches certainly feed today's appetite for state-of-the-art visual magic and off-color humor, it is last year's movie, "The Mask of Zorro," which is actually truer to the spirit of the original "Wild Wild West."
While the new "West" does revive a smattering of the series' trappings, fans of the TV show will miss the classic animated title sequence and, especially, Richard Markowitz's indispensable theme music, which has been abandoned save for a token, placating sound bite.
Also glaringly absent from the movie are such series staples as the deadly Rube Goldberg-like predicaments that regularly entrapped the heroes; the pretty heroines who quickly melted in Jim West's arms; the expertly choreographed fight scenes accented with stylish martial arts touches (marvelously performed in the TV show by Conrad); and the ending to nearly every "West"' episode in which our heroes cuddle two gorgeous ladies as their train chugged its way across the open frontier.
This '99 model "West" simply remains a shadow of the '65 classic. Unfortunately, for viewers uninitiated, this Will Smith opus gives the old show an undeserved bad rap.
As several of the series' deadliest villains conceded to Conrad's West 34 years ago: "I will say this, Mr. West. You have considerable style."
Gratefully, the same can still be said of the original TV show.
Notable television series writer, Danny Biederman has also written for such recognized publications as Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Emmy and American Cinematographer. His most current projects include a documentary special hosted by Patrick Macnee about the making of the '60's British spy series and a booklet which will be enclosed in the CD set of James Bond music entitled Best of James Bond's 30th Anniversary, for EMI Publishing .