The Color of Money

Wild Wild West
area theaters

Movie reviewers have been poised to flog Wild Wild West since early May, expecting that this overbudget and behind-schedule Will Smith flick would make for a good-ol' critical barbecue. (Since Titanic turned out to be okay, there hasn't been a big Hollywood weenie roast for quite a while.) As for this critic, I was at least well-prepared to be depressed by director Barry Sonnenfeld's gratuitous remake of a now-obscure Sixties TV show. For one thing, a girl gets tired of her favorite cheesy radio station putting free movie ads in heavy rotation. (If you haven't heard, KDWB has been playing Smith's insufferable Kool Moe Dee ripoff for weeks--while I'm still trying to wash his unctuous song about Miami outta my hair.) Smith has been particularly adept at vertical integration, embalming old-school rap and R&B to line the coffers of movie, radio, and record moguls. I mean, the dude might as well sell ad space on his forehead and be done with it.

Anyway, given all this, it was a real surprise when, 20 minutes into Wild Wild West, I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. (And no, to answer your question, this paper's own corporate owners weren't put on the payola to give the movie two thumbs up--or if they did, they're holding out on me big Willie style.) I guess it's a sad sign of the times that this should even bear mentioning, but one notable virtue of Wild Wild West is that, besides its stars, the movie has no name-brand product placements: There's no frappuccino-swillin' gunfighter or red-pack-smoking cowboy anywhere to be found, which is plenty rare for a film with heavy computer animation.

Rather, what Wild Wild West is selling is Will Smith, a huge star who's remarkable for his ability to suggest charisma while offering no discernible personality, and to signify Strong Black Male while remaining cunningly adaptable to the status quo. He's a black guy whom white folks can cozy up to: He talks plain, he's handsome, he's rich, and he doesn't seem angry. Wild Wild West is the manifest destiny of this formula, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, we have a true cinematic rarity: a big-budget action movie with a black hero and a white sidekick. Like the film itself, Smith's Jim West--who has been reinvented as a runaway slave-turned-free man--attempts to retroactively liberate his past. For one thing, West is so immune to the racism of the day that he charms the pants off a lynch mob. (See, we white folks knew we weren't that bad!) He also saunters through the front door of the White House (symbolism intended), and won't let anybody touch his piece. (As it happens, Smith boasted in Entertainment Weekly that he could be president in 15 years if he set his mind to it.)

Also contrary to historical likelihood, Smith's character knew his real family, whom he lost when a vengeful former slave owner (Kenneth Branagh) turned a giant cannon on a black village after losing half his body in the Civil War. Now he's threatening to overturn the government with a new secret weapon, and West and science-geek/master of disguises Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) must save the day. Because the enemy is so thoroughly odious (and, by the way, embodies Hollywood's vilification of disabled people), we're let off the hook for our own, less exciting racism. I mean, here's a guy whom anyone can hate--a man so radically evil that he has enemies among former slaves and former slavers.

As for Smith's hero, he must occasionally make short work of racist pigs, but for the most part he proves able to transcend race and racism--or, perhaps, to sidestep it. Sonnenfeld clearly understands that few things trouble white folks more than the sight of black men in groups (especially if they're packing heat). Thus Smith is the only black character in the entire movie, with the brief exception of one naked lady whom he kisses at the beginning. A gun-toting black man looks a lot less powerful when he's surrounded by white guys; less still when his job is to uphold the white power structure; and even less than that when he's being played by an actor whose apolitical public persona signifies serious loyalty to the status quo. We could definitely do with more black heroes and white sidekicks, but the primary color of this buddy movie is green.

 
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