i've had fun here, expressing my inner Leonard Maltin, but i have no delusions about my ability to make it as a professional critic. try as they might, they would never manage to teach me what is clearly the profession's Golden Rule, namely...
"comedies and fantasy adventures, technically known as "fun" or "necessary" movies, are absolutely beneath contempt. every month or so one such title will be drawn from a hat, and that one you may praise if so moved. all others are to be regarded and treated as deliberate, malicious attacks upon you personally.
"whereas dramas about day-to-day life in The Real World, technically known as "boring" or "pointless" movies, are the sacredest of cows and therefore to be graded on the proverbial curve. we're not saying you have to rave about every single one, but even the worst is to receive only the mildest slap on the wrist."
of course i'm paraphrasing. (yes, i realize i'm also generalizing, if not stereotyping, i just don't care.) but there surely must be some official creed to that effect. how else is one to account for the fact that something as vapid and inane as My Dinner With Andre, not to mention a soulless fad exploitation gambit like Saturday Night Fever, gets hailed as some sort of masterpiece, yet Wild Wild West, a delightful romp in the best tradition of the "popcorn" movie, becomes such an out-of-proportion whipping-boy.
honestly, to this day the film is held up a poster-child of grossly incompetent filmmaking and/or why vintage tv shows should never be adapted to modern movies. someone even managed to browbeat Will Smith into apologizing to Robert Conrad for "bastardizing" his signature role. to say nothing of the geek snobs who still won't let Smith forget that he passed on The Martix to do this film. (apparently it's a moot point that The Matrix is a convoluted wad of metaphysical gibberish, whereas whatever else you wanna say about Wild Wild West, at least it makes sense.)
the film is occasionally even called racist for some reason. presumably it has something to do with casting the black Will Smith as the formerly white Jim West. (it was around this time that modern political correctness began to get out of hand.) although i don't really understand that either, because turning a white character black seems like more of a slap in the face to the Ku Klux Klan than the NAACP. what race-relations commentary there is is in the tradition Blazing Saddles.
in practice, the film is too fun, too good-spirited, to actually deserve to be such a pariah. one can only assume that it got the leper status by way of eenie-meenie-miney-moe. either way, it was pretty much a fait accompli once the juggernaut got rollin'.
director Barry Sonnefeld chose Smith, star of his recent triumph Men In Black, simply to approach from a new angle. certainly his "aw, hell naw" shtick is a bit anachronistic, but hey, the original series wasn't exactly the stuff of The History Channel, either. it was James Bond in the West, for cryin' out loud. (although it might be a closer fit to "spy-fi" a' la The Avengers.) (Patrick Macnee, not Robert Downey.) Robert Conrad or Will Smith, it's escapist fantasy and should be treated as such.
it certainly never lacked a sense of the absurd. take it's most memorable villain, Dr. Miguelito Loveless. he was played by a dwarf actor named Michael Dunn, and "Miguelito" literally translates as "Little Michael." you can hardly accuse the film of straying from the original spirit if you knew that.
so it's not Gunsmoke. and since i never cared for Gunsmoke, i consider that a compliment.
a pretty good cast doesn't hurt, either. Kevin Kline is a hoot as "techie" sidekick/master of disguise Artemus Gordon. you wouldn't expect him to have any chemistry with Smith, but somehow they mesh gracefully. they say any film is only as good as it's villain, and this film certain scored when they cast Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Arliss Loveless. (no longer Miguelito for obvious reasons. who knows, maybe "Arliss" translates to "Little Kenneth" in some language.) he's crippled rather than munchkin, and as a chauvinist Southerner, his scheme is to secede from the United States. but he certainly has a kinship with the Miguelito of old, right down to his preference of henchwomen to henchmen. neither Kline nor Branagh does this sort of thing very often, and both are clearly having a ball with the change of pace.
i've long had a theory that genuine cinematic catastrophes are in fact as rare as masterpieces, that as a rule of thumb, a given film is less likely to be terrible than simply unexceptional. if nothing else, this movie should demonstrate that much.
one thing's for sure: Wild Wild West is hands-down the greatest film ever to "win" a Razzie!