Things I Learned From Movie X: Wild Wild West

By Edwin Davies

February 3, 2011

Performance art is so weird.

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The year was 1998, and Will Smith was the hottest star on Earth. He'd gone from strength to strength; he had a successful rap career, starred in a popular sitcom, and headlined back-to-back hits. It was around this time that a pair of writer-director brothers came to him with a script for a little film they had been working on. It was an action film that blended aspects of Hong Kong cinema, anime and metaphysics into a heady blend that they called Tommy Anderson and his Adventures in the Hyper-Net, later renamed The Matrix. Smith turned them down, instead opting to star in a steampunk influenced remake of a 1960s TV show in which Kenneth Branagh would play a torso.

In hindsight, Smith's decision to make Wild Wild West, a film remembered with a deserved and healthy amount of scorn and derision, rather than to star in one of the most beloved and influential action films of the last 20 years, seems like a poor one. Then again, in reverse-hindsight (more commonly known as foresight) it means that he didn't star in the Matrix sequels, so maybe he knew what the hell he was doing. After all, whilst he foresaw that the legacy of The Matrix would only be muddied and sullied by subsequent films, he knew that Wild Wild West would remain untouched and timeless, ready for eager students to take lessons from it. Lessons like...


It is entirely possible to survive a fall from a great height...

Jim West (Smith) is a U.S. Army...something (I'm not really sure what he is, I guess a cop or something? A ranger? Did they have Army Rangers in 1869? Do Army Rangers track down criminals? So many questions...) hot on the trail of General "Bloodbath" McGrath (Ted Levine), a Confederate General that West is intent on seeing brought to justice for his part in a massacre during the Civil War. In the course of his investigation, he meets and is partnered with Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), an eccentric U.S. Marshal with a penchant for invention. Together, they discover that McGrath is actually working for Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a psychotic inventor who plans to use a giant robotic spider to break up the Union. I would just like to point out at this point, as someone with a degree in History, that this did not really happen. I know that we can learn a lot of things from movies, but please don't think that this is one of them.

Anyway, at one point in the film, West climbs up the body of the giant spider, only to get shot by one of Arliss' cronies and fall to the ground. The bullet doesn't hurt him because, unbeknownst to him, Gordon had secretly installed a chain mail mesh on the inner lining of his coat, creating a proto-bulletproof vest. Why West didn't notice that his coat weighed 20 pounds more than it had the day before is a question for another day, but I can only assume that Jim West, as well as being a desperado and a rough rider, has the strength of a team of oxen. Maybe that wasn't explained in the film because it would be hard to work into a song. However, he also survives an 80 foot fall, despite landing on his back, which really should have shattered his spine. I realize that suspension of belief is an important part of film-making, but a dose of realism here wouldn't have hurt, if only because it could have set up an action climax in which Smith and Branagh fought in dueling wheelchairs, and who wouldn't want to watch that?

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