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Saturday, July 3, 1999 Published at 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK

Will's walk on the wild side

Box office shoot-out: Will Smith in Wild Wild West

By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

It has always been assumed that Wild Wild West, Will Smith's new action comedy, would do huge business in its opening weekend.

But in Hollywood there are doubts that it has the legs to propel it to the dizzy box office heights that Smith enjoyed with his two previous summer blockbusters, Men In Black and Independence Day.

Will Smith refuses to evaluate his work in terms of box office performance.

"I don't look at just opening box office as the success of the film. In my mind there's other categories of wins and losses that isn't necessarily directly affected by the dollar amount," he says.

Stinging reviews

But what Will Smith cannot escape are some stinging reviews from American critics. The Detroit News declared that Wild Wild West is a "resounding thud".

[ image: Smith: Not evaluating his work]
Smith: Not evaluating his work
The Orlando Sentinel labelled it "a vile vile mess" and USA Today simply said "Wild Wild West is a wild, wild mess".

The film is set in 1869, but it is based on a popular fantasy-western American TV series from the 1960s.

Smith plays a federal agent who foils the attempts of an evil, wheelchair-bound madman, Dr Arliss Loveless, played by Kenneth Branagh, to assassinate the president and return America to its former colonial owners.

The premise is not what has dismayed critics. It is the film's weak and sometimes incoherent storyline.

Where's the story?

[ image: Sonnenfeld: Film over budget]
Sonnenfeld: Film over budget
The absence of a good narrative will probably not dismay legions of movie-goers who will be more than satisfied by the star power of Will Smith, special effects that include dozens of gadgets including a hugely impressive mechanical tarantula, buxom women and sexually suggestive dialogue.

The film reportedly went way over its $105m budget.

It seems that huge amounts went on the production design and special effects, almost in a desperate effort to compensate for the lack of a good story and to give this blockbuster life.

Despite what the American critics say, Wild Wild West is not a totally unredeeming work. It seems to have an enlightened, almost subversive agenda compared to typical Hollywood action comedies.

In his previous blockbusters, Smith has not brought attention to his race, but in Wild Wild West he does, in what he calls an attempt to "deal with the racism of the time and point out how ridiculous the concept is".

Making a social statement

[ image: Director and stars: Facing a flop?]
Director and stars: Facing a flop?
Much of this comes from director Barry Sonnenfeld who believes that "comedy is a really good way to make social statements".

But not everyone is applauding how Sonnenfeld tackles racism. He uses politically incorrect humour to make his points.

He explains: "There is a scene where Will Smith as a black man is insulting Kenneth Branagh, who is someone who has no body from the waist down, and Will is making cripple jokes at Kenneth, and Kenneth is making racist jokes at Will."

Critics of the film have not found this humour amusing, or enlightening.

The film is also unusual in that it gives the two heroic characters, Will Smith and his sidekick, Artemus Gordon, played by Kevin Kline, a slightly ambiguous sexuality. Most westerns present the male leads as paragons of undiluted male bravado.

[ image: Hayek: Film's love interest]
Hayek: Film's love interest
But in Wild Wild West both Kevin Kline and Will Smith end up wearing dresses and engaging in a mock fondling excercise, though both try to win over the film's curvaceous beauty, Salma Hayek.

Wild Wild West presents some interesting symbolism for Americans to ponder during their Independence Day celebrations on the Fourth Of July weekend.

There is Will Smith as an all-American hero, a black cowboy with a feminine side, who saves the United States from an evil madman and its former colonial rulers.

However, these subversive elements are not enough to make Wild Wild West truly fly.

The film's lack of a compelling story probably will not tarnish Will Smith's standing at the box office, because he walks away from the film as a likeable rogue - a cool, hip, black cowboy who just tried his best.

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