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Robert Daniels & Odie Henderson Talk Wild Wild West at 25

The following is a conversation between Robert Daniels and Odie Henderson conducted over Zoom about the steampunk Western, adapted from the 1960s same-titled series, that became a mega box office flop—"Wild Wild West"—starring Will Smith as Agent Jim West, Kevin Kline as master of disguise Artemus Gordon, Salma Hayek as damsel in distress Rita Escobar, Kenneth Branagh as the villainous lost cause Southerner Dr. Arliss Loveless, and a giant mechanical spider. It’s "Wild Wild West" at 25-years-old.   

Robert: Thanks for talking with me today about the Willennium. 

Odie: Why you choose this movie, man? Why you choose this movie?

Robert: I knew you’d have fun things to say about it. [Laughs]

Odie: I haven’t seen this movie since it came out, and I watched it yesterday and I noticed several things that were different from what I originally put in my review. And it's 25 years old, right? It blew my mind when I realized it's 25-years-old.

Robert: Yes - we are nearly a quarter century into the Willennium. 

Odie: I give him credit for that as someone whose name is also Will, I can take credit for the Millennium. But let's riff, let's improvise. Since you brought this up: Tell me again, why did you choose this movie

Robert: You know what, I have a soft spot in my heart for this movie. I was the precious age of nine years old for the Willennium. I remember the little Burger King steampunk toys they made for this movie. I remember the trailers for this movie too. I remember thinking: Oh, Will Smith. I know him from “Independence Day” and “Men in Black,” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” He was the first movie star that I think I could actually recognize. And not just because it felt like he somewhat looked like me in terms of seeing another Black man on screen. But he was the first movie star that I felt like I knew, and had some kind of name association with the face I saw.

Odie: I could see that. If I had been nine, I would've probably fallen in love with this movie. I obviously wasn't nine. I was far older than nine when I saw this movie. And also I had some background reference of “The Wild Wild West,” the TV show about Jim West, Artemis Gordon, and Loveless, the villain of this movie. I had only seen a couple of episodes of it. It wasn't like a rerun, like some of the other shows that were on—this show started in 1965—so my mom watched it, and I remember my mom liked the show. She was into science fiction.

And so when I got to the movie, you know, I liked “Independence Day” a lot and I liked “Men in Black” a lot, and I liked “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “Six Degrees of Separation”—let's not forget that Will starred in this big drama for his screen debut—he was the big Black star. I've gone through many Black stars growing up. I had Richard Pryor, and at that moment, I had Will Smith. So I went to see it. And I just was like… I was numb watching this movie. I had no idea what the hell was going on. We can talk about this a little later, but watching it now, I see a lot of things I didn't see before that are interesting. That doesn't make the movie any better, but it makes it more interesting in terms of what I got out of it. Also, I've seen more episodes of “The Wild Wild West” because it's on TV every Saturday on one of these throwback television channels. The show is awful.

I forgot about the Burger King toys. Tell me about those, what were those like?

Robert: One of them was Kevin Kline on his little bike/motorcycle, and you could rev him up and he would zoom across the floor. The other one was the mechanical spider, and there was one with Salma Hayek on a stagecoach. There was also one with Will Smith on his horse. My aunt worked at Burger King, and I vividly remember asking: Could you please get me these toys?

Odie: You had an in! You had somebody to bring you some Burger King toys. Much better than when I got a Happy Meal back in the day. [Laughs] But the movie tie-in to this is interesting because there was a movie tie-in to “Men in Black,” and I think it was Burger King that did it. I don't think there was one for “Independence Day.” But it's interesting if we think about this, just from a purely Black perspective. You have Will Smith making toys for the glut of white kids that are gonna buy them. And the impetus is Will Smith, a Black actor. I think that's fascinating, especially now, looking back, this is 25 years ago, but they wouldn't have made a “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner” Happy Meal with Sidney [Poitier]. Although, I would've bought it just because I'm a sick person.

Robert: This was the height of Will’s marketability, particularly to white people. This is the height of his “crossover” stardom. They wanted to buy a toy with him on that horse, who, by the way, we don’t see for the rest of the film. He just abandons the horse!

Odie: But here's the funny thing: I remember when Will Smith wore the cowboy hat, and he’s got the white suit on for the “Wild Wild West” video. And watching this, I looked at Will Smith and I saw Django. I wonder if this is the reason why Tarantino wanted Will Smith to play Django in the first place. I also saw, and I can't believe I didn't catch this back then…I also saw Sweet, Sweetback.

Robert: YES. I haven't seen this film in probably about 15 years, so pre-me getting into Blaxploitation and getting into other Black films. But yeah, at the beginning, when he's sliding butt naked out of a water tank, and then he gets up and he puts on the black blazer sans the shirt, and with the black hat, I was like: Oh, that's "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." How did no one, and I was trying to find reviews to see if anyone had mentioned it—not end up mentioning it? I don't think I saw it anywhere. 

Odie: And I can't believe I didn't catch this at the time I saw the movie. There are a lot of things that nobody mentions in any of the reviews. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that back then there were only a few Black critics. Elvis Mitchell was around, and then there were a couple of others, but I don't recall them reviewing this film. Every review I read was by a white reviewer. And they would not have caught or would not have thought to mention some of these things, especially “Sweetback.” 

I realized when I was watching it again that it leans a little bit more into the fact that Will Smith is a Black guy in 1869 with a gun. In my original review, I kind of downplayed that. But I'm watching it again, and I was kind of interested in how the movie never denies that. In fact, sometimes it makes very clever ways of working that in so that the suspension of disbelief is kept because, you know, they would've shot him in a second. Kenneth Branagh says as much, early on. I found all these little connections of things they attempted to do that I don't think they successfully did. I kind of appreciated the effort a little bit more this time. I found there were also so many things, racial references or just cues and visual things that were being done in the movie that surprised me. So starting with “Sweetback” again and going even more into that whole sequence where Branagh and Will Smith exchange these really, probably problematic barbs like “I haven't seen you in a coon’s age.” [Laughs]

Robert: And then there’s the moment where they’re trying to sneak into the southern party and Kline suggests that Will goes in disguised as his man servant, and Will basically does a Stepin Fetchit to show how bad of an idea that is. 

Odie: Will Smith's character is, well, he's Will Smith, but he's smarter than you would get a Black character in a movie like this. It made me think of “Skin Game.” In “Skin Game” with Louis Gossett Jr. and James Garner—for the uninitiated, “Skin Game” is a 1971 satire where James Garner tries to sell Louis Gossett Jr. as his slave, then he would help him escape, and then they would split the money—there's a scene where Ed Asner—long before “Roots,” Lou Grant is the bad guy in this movie—where he figures out the rules. And Louis Gossett Jr. says something very erudite. And the guy says: “That's the smartest thing I've heard coming from a negro. You say it again, I'll blow your ass off.” And then Louis Gossett Jr. goes Stepin Fetchit.

Robert: I haven’t seen “Skin Game” in quite a while; it’s of course a Black Western. During Blaxploitation you had an explosion of Black Westerns and during the late 90s, there was another mini one happening with Mario Van Peebles’ “Posse,” John Singleton’s “Rosewood,” and “Wild Wild West.” In the 90s you also had the shadow of Rodney King and other violent over policing against Black people permeating the political conversation. And then you have these Black Westerns coming on the back end of the hood films. This is certainly a middlebrow version of that, especially since Will Smith is essentially playing a cop, but to your point, it’s interesting thinking about this Black man roaming the West putting one over on white people—particularly in the scene where he’s able to talk his way out of a lynching by explaining the etymology of the word 'redneck.' 

Odie: And again, you think about how Black Westerns use Black characters, something like “Take a Hard Ride” with Fred Williamson, or any Fred Williamson Western—because he did a fair amount of them—there's a comedic aspect to a lot of these things. There's always a kind of gallows humor to the proceedings, and it’s usually verbal. “Blazing Saddles” is the most extreme example of that, when Cleavon Little puts a gun to his own head and says, “I'll shoot him.” And the white people are like, “Is anyone going to help this poor man?”

What these characters did was basically talking their way out of a whooping. I find that stuff to be fascinating, even in a strict drama. Something like “Unforgiven,” for example. You have Morgan Freeman having a couple of lines where it's a similar premise of, you know, how am I gonna survive: The only way I can do it is I got to talk, I've got to have a silver tongue. And, you know, Will Smith being a rapper, this is right up his alley.

Robert: I want to go back into what you initially wrote about this film in 1999. Could you give a synopsis of what you thought about this film in 1999?

Odie: We were sold a comedy. Sometimes it's about your expectation of something. You know, I remember they sold “The Goonies” as a “Gremlins” rip-off and I hated “The Goonies.” Partially the reason why I hated it is because I went in expecting something that I did not get. And I think “Wild Wild West” was promoted as some form of a Will Smith comedy, and the movie really isn't a comedy. I mean, it's got what I would assume to be jokes, but it's not really pitched that way. It's more of a big budget, ridiculous action movie that would've been very prevalent at the time because these movies were hits.

Also it leaned more into the steampunk that the original show only barely kind of touched because I guess steampunk wasn't that big. My understanding is the reason why steampunk even got legs was because of the original TV show. And so now at this point, in 1999, it's really become a big thing. You have “Johnny Mnemonic,” you have "Tank Girl,” you have all these things where people are recognizing these elements—but I would not have been on that wavelength at all. So a lot of the stuff I complained about had to do with the special effects and the weirdness of them. It didn't seem to make a lick of sense to me. That's the gist of it: I didn't get a comedy. I got a very strange movie. 

And back then I did not appreciate the true ham of Kenneth Branagh. That was the most interesting thing when I decided I wanted to do this talk with you. I said: I'm gonna have to watch this again because I now make the biggest argument for Kenneth Branagh chewing the scenery. I've gone completely rogue. If I had felt the way about him then that I do now, I would've liked “Wild Wild West” a lot more because—it’s a line I had in my “Tenet” piece—I love when an actor's ego is in direct proportion to their lack of shame.

Robert: He’s such a massive, massive presence in this film. From the big Southern accent, to the overly manicured beard, to his overinflated ego. He wears you down until you're as committed as him!

Odie: He has this wicked gleam during the entire movie. I'm like: How can you sustain that? Is he really out of his mind? Was he on drugs? But no, it's his commitment. For better and for worse, this is the only way to play Loveless. You can't play him with any subtlety whatsoever. He has to be as big as the special effects that are attached to him. But let's talk about the plot of this movie because I kind of conveniently forgot exactly what Loveless’ plan is: He basically wants to bring back the Confederacy. Now that's a hell of a lot more timely now than it was in 1999. Let's talk about that.

Robert: He wants to kidnap President Grant, who at that moment is kind of known as the spearhead of reconstruction and as the primary man he blames for the south losing. He wants to hold Grant hostage to force him to sell off portions of the US to these foreign entities and then basically recreate the Confederacy, through this sell off of different pieces of the US which have been purchased or stolen at this point. So there's almost a muddled kind of take on imperialism to this plan.

Odie: I wish the movie had explored that more because that was certainly an interesting idea, where he has this big speech about exactly how he's gonna bring the Confederacy back. And it's basically breaking up the Union. We're gonna give the 13 colonies back to England except for New York. Let's not forget New York was also a port for slaves. That may be the reason why he wanted to keep New York and give the rest of the 13 colonies back. But then you have one Black guy and one Mexican woman and one white dude who are going to save the Union.

Robert: And two of them, in reality, should have no reason to do so! There's a lot of drag in this film. Particularly from Kevin Kline. But then there's the last bit by Will Smith, which might be among the weirdest scenes of his career: He dresses as a belly dancer and seduces Kenneth Branagh. I find it fascinating because that's the last time I can think of in his career that he put his presence as a star as secondary to the bit. He's thinking of it totally as a comedic actor while doing his best early “Aladdin” audition.

Odie: In Guy Ritchie’s “Aladdin” he shows up in drag just like in the cartoon, when Robin Williams' genie shows up in drag. I had totally forgotten. I think I blocked it out of my mind. [Laughs] Every costume Artemis used as a chick… he wasn't good looking. At least Will Smith covered his face and you saw his eyes and he kind of sells the bit. But I mean, Will’s belly dancing scene goes on longer than you would expect a star to put themselves out there like that. It's a little bit surprising that Will Smith even agreed to that at this point in his career. If you think about it, he wouldn’t kiss Anthony Michael Hall in “Six Degrees of Separation.” So now he's twerking [Laughs] dressed as a woman.

RD: What I also find interesting is that, us, as the audience, we can tell that Kevin Kline isn’t a woman. But none of the characters can tell. In many films with drag, of course, it wouldn’t be uncommon for the guy to be fooled by the drag, fall in love with the woman, only to feel emasculated when he discovers he’s been duped. There is often the violence that follows when a man feels queer panic. But that doesn’t happen here.

Odie: When Kenneth Branagh finds out that it's Jim West, he doesn't freak out like: Oh, I was attracted to a man. He is like, this is my enemy. Just kill him. There's no kind of panic as you say, which is interesting. I didn't really think about that. And I think you're right. This may be the last time Will Smith committed to the bit and since the movie was a flop, I wonder if that changed his thought process because what was the next movie he did after this? Was it “Bad Boys”?

Robert: “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

Odie: Oh God!

Robert: It’s amazing because he does the Stepin Fetchit bit here. And then he does a 180 and takes a movie where he’s Stepin Fetchit for its entirety. 

Odie: But we can’t have a conversation about "Wild Wild West" without discussing the music. And I’m not talking about Elmer Bernstein’s throwback of a Western score. I’m talking about “wiki-wiki-Wild Wild West, Jim West, Desperado! Rough rider, no you don’t want nada!”

Will Smith didn’t create the end credits summary song (Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks did it 12 years earlier with “City of Crime” from “Dragnet”), but I think he perfected it with this movie’s Razzie-nominated version. What do you think about it? Should Stevie and Kool Moe Dee be put in timeout for letting Will sample them?

Robert: I will die on the hill that the Razzies were dead wrong. We lost something as a society when Will Smith stopped doing songs to his own movies. There was, of course, the "Men in Black" theme song, and this is trying to emulate that one's success. But there's also the stacked soundtrack for "Wild Wild West." There was Enrique Iglesias, who my Burger King working aunt loved, BLACKstreet, Slick Rick, Common and Jill Scott. And Will's title track was the highlight. It's wacky, corny, and quite possibly the dumbest use of Stevie Wonder and Kool Moe Dee one can imagine. But that's what made the Willennium a 'you had to be there' moment. On a final note, where do you think “Wild Wild West” sits in the entirety of Will Smith’s career?

Odie: Well, it’s certainly not the worst movie he's done. He's done far, far worse movies than this. I think it's an interesting failure. I've kind of softened a little bit to the movie. I still think it's terrible. But I always talk about people making freshman mistakes—granted this is not a freshman mistake—they make this mistake and sometimes they're the most interesting mistakes to make because they'll never make them again. 

You look at “School Daze” and Spike made mistakes in that movie that I found to be interesting and he never made them again. He wasn't self-conscious. He was just doing things and then when he realized they didn’t work, he either tweaked them or never did them again. Those things are always the most interesting kind of failures. So I'm looking at this like, I see what he was trying to do. He was going to build up his image by doing a Western paying homage to Fred Williamson and to the other Black Westerns like “Harlem Rides the Range.” I get that. I'm sure he's doing that because as we said, look at “Sweet Sweetback” and all the allusions to it. He's conscious of this element of bringing back the Black Western and unfortunately this is the movie he chose to do it with. 

Robert: I find it fascinating that he does the 180 to “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and then does another 180 by doing “Ali.” They’re just totally different Black men. I think this is an interesting, weird movie. It’s so big, brash and dumb—and this is the peak of Will Smith’s era of cool. I kind of love it. The mega failure is what I love about it too. This is a star with so much confidence that he put his name to this, fully believing it was going to be a hit. That's a once-a-career high. There’s an intense verve to a star having that kind of feeling that trickles down through the rest of the film. It’s intoxicating. 

Odie: I will also die on the hill that Will Smith deserved best actor over Denzel for “Training Day.”

Robert: I can’t think of a better cliffhanger to end on!

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