Big Willie Weekend, 1999
Two summers after their hit film MEN IN BLACK, director Barry Sonnenfeld (d.p. of BLOOD SIMPLE) and star Will Smith (SUICIDE SQUAD) tried to bring a similar comedy/special-effects/adventure mix to the old west. It’s like a western in that there are cowboy hats, guns, railroads and occasional horses, but also not really because it’s about two top agents for the president going undercover and then having a big battle against a giant mechanical spider that’s on a rampage and headed for the White House. Not a type of story I’ve seen done with John Wayne or Clint or anybody.
The basis is The Wild Wild West, a western-meets-spies TV show that lasted four seasons, ending thirty years prior to the movie. It was actually cancelled not due to a lack of popularity, but controversy over violence on television, and did have two followup TV movies. But the last of those was in 1980, and nineteen years later it was at best a cult show, and not yet available on DVD. So this is another expensive blockbuster based on characters that most of its intended youthful audience had never seen, or in this case even heard of.
But they didn’t have to know it was based on anything. Waning interest in westerns may have been a bigger problem, but that could’ve been overcome by the popularity of Smith, or the fun gimmick of the gadgets and steampunk type robotics, or the energetic style and cartoonish humor of the director of the ADDAMS FAMILY movies.
But that didn’t happen.
Smith plays Jim West, cocky proto-Secret-Service hotshot who President Ulysses S. Grant (Kevin Kline, SILVERADO) sends to hunt the infamous Confederate General “Bloodbath” McGrath (Ted Levine, THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake). He quickly discovers that Grant also sent inventor and master-of-disguise Artemis Gordon (Kevin Kline, RICKI AND THE FLASH), and the two are forced to buddy up, traveling on a train filled with crazy gadgets in search of some missing scientists.
The trail leads them to another Confederate, Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh, MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN), who is also a brilliant inventor and is able to get around in steam-powered wheelchairs even though his lower body was blown off in the war. (Later he has a chair that walks around on four robotic legs.) He’s supported not only by General McGrath, but an all-female squad of bodyguards dressed like ass-kicking showgirls. I like that the one with the shotgun is named Munitia (Musetta Vander from OBLIVION I and II and MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION). Also he has Jim West’s opposite, Miss East (Bai Ling from THE CROW, stunt doubled by Diana Lee Inosanto).
There’s a famous story about producer Jon Peters (THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, BATMAN) trying to force a giant spider into the SUPERMAN LIVES movie that Tim Burton and Kevin Smith were trying to do, and then into a movie of the comic book Sandman, and then he finally got it into this. So Dr. Loveless has been stealing weapons and great minds in a plot to build his giant tarantula and enact his plan of the De-United States of America.
I want to be clear here: just because a crazy person came up with this idea does not mean it’s not cool. The giant spider is the best part of the movie. But Peters also conceived the worst part of the movie: the two long sequences of Kline and then Smith in drag, with big fake boobs, successfully seducing men using Miss Piggy voices. Sonnenfeld says on the DVD commentary track, “So, this sequence coming up where you see Will Smith in a dress was Jon Peters’ idea. Jon loves men in dresses. It was his idea to put Kevin Kline in a dress at the beginning of the movie in the saloon, it was his idea to have Will in a dress, he kept fighting to see if he could find a way to have a scene with both Will and Kevin both in dresses at the same time.”
I’m not saying it’s “problematic,” I’m saying it’s just not funny, and in the case of the Smith scene it undermines the menace of Dr. Loveless, who seems smarter than the heroes until he interrupts the execution of Artemis Gordon to watch an unsolicited “sexy” dance.
There’s alot of broad humor like this: Gordon hypnotizing McGrath to bark like a dog, or having a spring-loaded boob to punch a guy, etc.
If you do want problematic though, there’s a disturbing joke where Dr. Arliss has kidnapped undercover dancer Rita (Salma Hayek, DESPERADO) and implies that he has some kind of mechanical method to rape her, and then it cuts to his disc-launching device, which looks like this:
Other jokes are clever but not really funny. McGrath has a metal cylinder embedded in his head as a listening device. When he’s shot dead, a puppy comes over and stands next to him…
…and it looks like the RCA logo. Yeah, I recognize it, but why is that funny? I mean, you could work the Morton Salt girl in here too, but I don’t know why, it wouldn’t be funny. Sonnenfeld says on the commentary that this is his favorite joke.
I’m not one of these people who hates Smith or resents him for being a giant mainstream movie star. He and I go way back to when I saw DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince open for Run-DMC on the Tougher Than Leather Tour. I seem to like I AM LEGEND more than anyone else and I also defend a couple of his widely panned movies, SEVEN POUNDS and AFTER EARTH. So you know no disrespect is intended when I say his approach to comedy really bothers me sometimes. He has this “I’m being funny now” voice and demeanor that ruins alot of his joking for me, and that definitely happens in this movie.
I think they’re trying to make him a little bit like the John Shaft of the Old West. When they show him during the cool TV-style intro, Elmer Bernstein’s music throws on some (sadly not very funky) wah-wahs. And in his first scene he’s using a water tower as a combination stakeout spot/romantic sex hot tub with a beautiful woman (Garcelle Beauvais, I KNOW WHO KILLED ME) we never see again. And he talks in a circa-1999 idea of a cowboy “with attitude.”
This brings me to the aspect of the movie that actually makes it more interesting than I ever gave it credit for. In 1999, Will Smith was the world’s biggest movie star, yet I remember various knuckleheads online whining that a black man couldn’t star in a western. Obviously they weren’t familiar with the history of African-Americans in the old west, or the movie POSSE, which could’ve taught them about it. But I completely forgot that it is not just color blind casting, the story actually addresses race and our nation’s history of slavery, which feels daring and even a little uncomfortable in a big silly wannabe blockbuster based on an old TV show.
It starts immediately. The first white man who sees West is about to call him the n-word when West punches him out. Sneaking into a fancy party, a guard calls West “boy” and he takes on a mock-subserviant voice before, again, punching the guy out.
When he first meets the amputee Dr. Loveless, they have a fake-polite conversation insulting each other with innuendo – Dr. Loveless using phrases like “haven’t seen him in a coon’s age” and “a slave to your disappointment,” West hitting back with phrases that involve standing up, legs and halves.
And the craziest part is when he touches a white woman’s boobs (he thinks she’s Gordon in disguise) and almost gets lynched for it. He stands in front of the torch-wielding mob, his neck just feet away from the noose, and does kind of a comedy routine trying to explain away the incident and charm his way out of it. It culminates with asking “Would it help if I told you I thought you were a man?” and the woman fainting and tipping over backwards like a plank. So there you have a good mix of what is edgy about WILD WILD WEST and what is the opposite.
Meanwhile Gordon is off rescuing Rita from a cage, so he’s not helping. Or is he? Somehow he set it up so there was a rubber noose that West could use to catapult himself out of danger. I don’t know how I feel about this.
We learn that West’s mission is personal: McGrath and/or Loveless murdered his parents. They lived in a settlement of ex-slaves called Libertyville, where the ex-Confederates tested their super-gun in a racist massacre. It’s played as a standard “you killed my parents” revenge trope, but the racist savagery of it makes it more potent.
President Grant respects West enough that he can just walk into the Oval Office, and not get in trouble when he shoots a bullet into the ceiling. He’s the suave hero, surrounded by bumbling rednecks, a term he even uses for the fancy rich people who almost murder him. Because so much of the comedy doesn’t work it’s easy to say they’re making light of something they shouldn’t be. But I think it’s admirable that they try to deal with historical racism rather ignore it in the name of tastefulness.
Branagh, I have to say, is pretty funny with his Jeff Sessions accent and smarmy attitude. I can’t say I approve of his HUNGER GAMES facial hair, though.
It looks like Mr. Spock tossing a pizza.
As it gets into the big battle at the end – usually the worst part of a movie like this – I have more fun with it. There’s a part where Loveless dumps West through a trap door on the giant spider to get “a whooping,” and he has to fight off a succession of killers with different gimmicks. Stunt coordinator and second unit director is Terry Leonard (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS) and the action stuff is well done.
I was surprised to find myself really thinking Smith was funny in this scene. A guy comes at him with big swords for hands, so West says “Hell, I got one of those too” and pops a little knife out of his boot. The guy swings his swords around expertly, so West growls and wiggles his knife foot back and forth. Then they have a pretty good fight scene. Sonnenfeld says on the commentary that “some of this sequence was conceived by Shane Black” and that all of it was shot by Bill Pope (THE MATRIX). It genuinely made me laugh when West said
Seems like something out of HUDSON HAWK.
There are other good ones. I like when Gordon has a tiny, tiny gun that West found hidden inside a belt buckle, and he points it at Munitia and she immediately surrenders and tosses her big gun away.
Tiny guns are actually a Sonnenfeld theme, I think. One of the MEN IN BLACKs definitely had a joke about tiny guns that are really powerful. I don’t know if he had that in RV or not.
At the end West is dangling off of Loveless dangling off of the spider and Loveless says “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle, how did we arrive at this dark situation?”
To which West replies, “I have no idea, Dr. Loveless. I’m just as stumped as you are.”
And I have to admit that at that point I was totally on the movie’s wavelength.
It’s a good looking movie. The production designer is Bo Welch, who has worked often with Sonnenfeld and Tim Burton. The cinematographer (except for those reshoots with Bill Pope) is Michael Ballhaus (GOODFELLAS, UNDER THE CHERRY MOON), obviously working in some of the style of former camera guy Sonnenfeld. There’s an EVIL DEAD or PHANTASM style shot following flying metal discs as they chase West and Gordon through a corn field. Also they do a cool optical illusion in the scene where a gunman is disguised as a painting on the wall.
In 1992, Richard Donner almost did a WILD WILD WEST movie with Mel Gibson and a Shane Black script. Donner decided to do MAVERICK instead. (Remember, Donner also almost did THE FLINTSTONES. He decides against doing alot of these movies.) I’m not clear if Black ever wrote a script – it seemed to me like Sonnenfeld was saying that he script doctored that scene, not that it was left over from an old script of his. According to the credits, the story is by the brothers who wrote PREDATOR (Jim & John Thomas), script by the guys who wrote TREMORS (S.S. Wilson & Brent Maddock) and the guys who wrote WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman).
Sonnenfeld and Smith originally signed on with George Clooney (BATMAN & ROBIN) on board to play Artemis Gordon. He had vacated Sam Raimi’s JACK FROST (eventually not Sam Raimi’s, and with Michael Keaton) to take the role, but he and Sonnenfeld agreed that the changes being made to fit him in were ruining the movie. He stepped aside and that must’ve been when he did THREE KINGS.
Arguably the thing that’s most remembered about the movie, and the cheesiest part, is the end credits theme song by Smith. Hearing it now it’s kind of catchy, there are far worse songs. At the time I resented it for lifting the tune of one of my favorite Stevie Wonder songs. And I remember seeing an interview with Smith, I think from when he performed it on the MTV Movie Awards, gushing about how he’d been wanting to work with Kool Moe Dee for years.
All Kool Moe Dee does is say “Wild Wild West,” and until I learned otherwise I assumed it was just a sample of him saying it on his own song of the same title. What the fuck, man. Give him a verse!
I expected the song to fade into Bernstein score on the credits, because I forgot there’s also an Enrique Iglesias love song. There was actually a whole soundtrack album padded out with unrelated hip hop and R&B. For some reason it opens with Tupac and Dre’s “California Love” and also features Eminem featuring Dre, BLACKstreet, MC Lyte, Faith Evans, Slick Rick and Common featuring Jill Scott. It also has the first released song by 12-year-old Li’l Bow Wow.
There was a line of action figures.
There were trading cards. The novelization is by Bruce Bethke, whose 1983 short story Cyberpunk popularized that term. There was a PC game called Wild Wild West: Steel Assassin – a different adventure than in the movie, but with West and Gordon who appear to be based on Smith and Cline.
Meanwhile, Burger King had two types of round sunglasses – one for Jim West, one for Artemis Gordon – with a W-logo carrying case and lens cleaner. And they had a set of six different toys that came with their “BK Big Kids Meals.” I imagine the “Salma Hayek sitting down” figure went on all kinds of amazing adventures in kids’ imaginations.
Of course, the summer of 1999 was destined to be dominated by STAR WARS EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE. People talk trash now, but it was a huge phenomenon, and I personally don’t remember meeting anybody who didn’t overall like the movie until a few years later. In a distant second place that year was a summer hit that nobody saw coming, THE SIXTH SENSE. You also had Disney’s TARZAN and THE MUMMY and the March release THE MATRIX was probly still lingering in some theaters. So there was alot to compete with.
WILD WILD WEST was famously rejected by the world, the first major stumble in Smith’s career, putting the future of Big Willie Weekend in question. It won a bunch of Razzies, and who gives a shit about that, but the harsh part is that original Jim West Robert Conrad accepted them in person out of hatred for the movie.
It ultimately grossed less than half what MEN IN BLACK did, on almost double the budget. It at least opened at first place for its weekend, but considerably smaller than MEN IN BLACK, which makes me think it wasn’t just poor word of mouth, but people not being sold on the Will Smith western comedy thing in the first place.
Or maybe Kevin Cline is no Tommy Lee Jones. I don’t know.
I suspect if it had been a big success that we would’ve seen a new Smith/Sonnenfeld joints every 3 or 4 Julys. Instead they did two more MEN IN BLACKs, and otherwise Sonnenfeld has concerned himself with smaller comedies like BIG TROUBLE and RV. He’s had more critical success on TV, between The Tick, Pushing Daisies and the Netflix version of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Smith’s career took less of a hit. Within two years he was playing Muhammad Ali and getting an Oscar nomination for it, and soon BAD BOYS II had him back in the graces of the box office. It would be nearly a decade before the run of HANCOCK, SEVEN POUNDS, MEN IN BLACK 3, AFTER EARTH… okay, one of those is okay, two I like, one I didn’t see, but to different degrees they erased the previous conventional wisdom of Smith the invincible box office champion.
During that time, Smith said in an interview that he understood why Conrad was offended by the movie, and apologized for it. But I have a theory of how the film could’ve had a lasting effect on his career: Smith’s $2.5 million, two-story trailer that he lived in while filming MEN IN BLACK, annoying the shit out of people wherever he parked. I bet he got the idea from living on that train! I bet he has gadgets in there and shit!
Spider and drag loving producer Peters seemed to flame out in the next decade. He was credited on ALI and SUPERMAN RETURNS, but seemed to be done after paying $3.3 million to an assistant he sexually harassed on the latter. In an interview last January with The Hollywood Reporter, Peters brags that he was banned from the set of MAN OF STEEL but still got an executive producer credit and $10-$15 million. Also that he voted for Trump, obviously. And now he’s producing the remake of A STAR IS BORN that was gonna be directed by Clint and now will be Bradley Cooper.
I remember hating WILD WILD WEST at the time, and there was a bit of dread and masochism to me watching it again for this series. Much of the comedy is definitely as bad as I remembered. On the other hand, the attempt to deal with the legacy of slavery and the civil war in a movie of this type is kind of cool, I do have to give it up for the cool mechanical spider, and I did genuinely laugh at some of the jokes toward the end. I feel like the needle leans a little more toward… kinda liking it?
This is not a full-on endorsement, but I will say that I have gone 18 years remembering it as total shit, and I’m not gonna think of it that way anymore. So congratulations to everyone involved.