IN THE NEW FILM VERSION OF THE OLD TELEVISION series The Wild Wild West, one of America's biggest black stars stands next to a hangman's noose and jokes to a crowd of postbellum Southerners about how slavery wasn't such a big deal after all. The character, a tough U.S. marshal named Jim West, has taken a perilously wrong turn, and just seconds into this would-be lynching, it's excruciatingly clear that he's not alone. The man doing this slavery standup is, of course, Will Smith, the wildly popular star of Men in Black, whose presence in this year's edition of the July 4 event movie is its sole point of fascination as well as its folly.
The time is 1869; the place is, for the most part, the Deep South; and Smith is playing a lawman a scant six years after the abolition of slavery. In the sane world, this confluence of factors might create, as they say, a disconnect, but not in Hollywood, where rational thought is never as important as opening weekend. The original series, characterized by an overabundance of gadgetry, tepid innuendo and the sex appeal of its two leads, was inspired by James Bond but built from cardboard; like a lot of mid-'60s shows, it had a hollow quality that neither time nor nostalgia can fill. Smith has the role that belonged to Robert Conrad, a square-jawed type whose bland good looks were infinitely less interesting than the sly-puss stratagems of his co-star, Ross Martin. Playing uncomfortably against Smith is Kevin Kline, who has the Martin role of Artemus Gordon, master of unconvincing disguises. For the record, the film's gadgetry is pricier, but the leering is strictly the Playboy joke page circa 1967.
The filmmakers, realizing that Smith can't hide behind a rubber mask -- he is the movie, its reason for being -- have opted to turn slavery into one of the movie's running gags, or at least an uneasy motif. Happily, the burden of identity doesn't weigh heavily on Smith's character. This Jim West ran away from his slavers as a child and was raised by Indians, which allows him to be black (and cool) and Indian (and cool), but without the attendant horror. The idea, it seems, is that when a contemporary black star -- especially one whose blackness no longer seems as important or relevant as his celebrity -- makes jokes about slavery or lynching, it's funny, or at least worth some giggles. This is why, when the white villain, Dr. Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), calls Jim West a "coon," West can make fun of the fact that Loveless is in a wheelchair -- and not get strung up. It's an empowerment thing, trash talking for the post-enlightened.
It's hard to think of who could have made lynching funny. Lenny Bruce and Chris Rock are two names that guardedly come to mind, though one comic lies dead and the other probably knows better. S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, the writers credited with the script, are four names that don't. One of the mysteries of the modern movie business is that who writes the script seems to be less important than who does the music or caters the shoot. The composer for Wild Wild West is Elmer Bernstein, who's scored everything from The Man With the Golden Arm to The Grifters; the production designer is Bo Welch, whose credits include A Little Princess; and the cinematographer is Michael Ballhaus, who shot GoodFellas. Director Barry Sonnenfeld, best known for Men in Black but best remembered for Get Shorty, is a pop stylist with an elastic touch -- he has a gift for the cheerfully trivial. In other words, the credits for Wild Wild West are mostly exemplary, and yet the screenplay is swill.
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WILD WILD WEST | Directed by BARRY SONNENFELD | Written by S.S. WILSON, BRENT MADDOCK, JEFFREY PRICE and PETER S. SEAMAN Produced by SONNENFELD and JON PETERS Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide