One of 1999's would-be summer blockbusters, an odd mixture of Victorian science-fiction and a traditional, post-Civil War western that seems to have been universally panned by critics and audiences alike. Yet in the trailers it looked good: man of the moment Will Smith playing cool black cowboy Jim West, Kevin Kline as the master of gadgets and disguise, and Kenneth Branagh as a theatrically deranged mad scientist. So what went wrong?
The story starts with black US marshal Jim West (Will Smith) on the trail of renegade Confederate general "Bloodbath" McGrath (Ted Levine), a man responsible for the slaughter of innocent civilians at the town of New Liberty during the Civil War. In fact McGrath is at that point enjoying the charms of a bawdy house full of dubious ladies, one of whom is US marshal Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline, brilliant drag performance). After the balloon goes up in a massive shootout and McGrath escapes, Smith and Gordon are summoned to see President Grant (another fine Kline performance!), who tells them that scientists are being abducted by McGrath. Behind the disappearances is the shadowy figure of Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), the brilliant but crippled and embittered Confederate strategist, who reemerges in Southern society shortly before unveiling a set of terrifying machines and plans to overthrow the United States in the aftermath of the Union victory.
Actually this film isn't half as bad as it has been painted by the critics, although it's not as great as it would like to be. Fortunately it was not that massively hyped (at least in comparison with such previous blockbusters as Godzilla), so we weren't driven to extremes of anticipation and disappointment. In fact Will Smith and Kevin Kline in their different roles (tough guy man-of-action and brainy gadgeteer-cum-disguise-artist respectively) are both good, although Kevin Branagh threatens to upstage them as the deliciously mad and often leering Victorian villain. Also, Kevin Kline is quite funny (and convincing) as a woman, but Will Smith isn't: in fact you almost wish they had cut this scene, despite the fact that the film does occasionally look like a Will Smith vanity vehicle. Political correctness might have been a bit offended in the scene where Smith and Branagh bandy black slave and cripple jokes at each other, and by the bevy of various beauties that Branagh has around him, all of them likewise villainous. Ted Levine also delivers as the half-crazy, psychotic old general who nevertheless dies for his loyalty to his men, while Salma Hayek plays competently as Rita Escobar, looking for her kidnapped inventor father. The special effects are fine, especially the gargantuan machine driven by Arliss Loveless rampaging across Utah.
Perhaps the problem that most people had with this film is its hybrid nature - half Western, half Jules Verne-style science fiction, and the uncertainty as to whether it's a comedy or a straight thriller. To be honest, I didn't laugh that much, but I still enjoyed it. There are better films, but it's still a good night's entertainment with few pretensions.
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