The nineteenth century, and James West (Will Smith) is an agent of the U.S. Government who is seeking out enemies of the people and is currently on the trail of the man who caused a massacre in the Deep South. At the moment, however, this means he is naked in a water tower with a lady (Garcelle Beauvais) who also happens to be naked, but just as things are about to get interesting he hears the sound of the hooves of the horses of the men of the General he is hoping to arrest. One thing leads to another, the tower collapses, and West ends up starkers in front of some lackeys who would happily see him dead, but he thinks fast on his feet and overcomes these foes, and more...
Although it was a flop in its native United States, this mega-budget remake of the nineteen-sixties television series turned a profit internationally, presumably because there was not as much brand recognition over there, for in the nineties there were plenty of Americans who had fond memories of what Robert Conrad and Ross Martin had got up to in their Western version of James Bond, sort of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. with horses and six-shooters. Indeed, Conrad himself had fond memories of the show, and made a big deal of telling all and sundry that this movie incarnation was a bastardisation of what had made the series (and its stars) so dear to the hearts of millions.
Audiences who knew that original wholeheartedly agreed, believing for a start that Smith was miscast, and there did seem to be an unease that an African American was stepping into the role of a white actor, perhaps more then than there would be today. Historically, it would be highly unlikely that the U.S. Army would recruit a black man to carry out their top level missions, and this was a sticking point with audiences of a more pedantic nature, with the references to the racism of the day presented as throwaway jokes rather than tackled head on, including a seriously misjudged sequence where Smith's West was nearly lynched played for laughs. Not so much "too soon" as, er, don't do that.
If this had a slender grasp on race relations, then the cast made no secret they were not enjoying themselves either, with masses of rewrites and reshoots in an attempt to whip the movie into shape resulting in a mess on the screen with everyone mugging and showing off in a try at creating a comedy out of what had been in its original concept for a movie, a more serious thriller set in the Old West. It certainly showed that Smith, after a nineties where it seemed he could do no wrong, had feet of clay after all, and arguably he never really recovered in popularity for that golden decade in his filmography, though he has continued to enjoy hits - they are simply not as universally appreciated. Not that he was doing anything especially wrong here, or not much that he had not delivered before.
Yet context is everything, and while a Fred Williamson Western was not going to cut it with nineties moviegoers, neither was something that looked as if the studio hadn't thought this through and were reduced to flinging cash at the problem instead of applying keen minds to see what was wrong and what could be done. This Wild Wild West was blatantly committee-led rather than having a smart talent who could harness the potential of what, after all, was not such a bad idea, yet had been afflicted with a sour response from both those who saw it and those who produced it. Kevin Kline was all at sea (in a desert) as Artemis Gordon, West's sidekick, and dressing him as a woman smacked of desperation, while female lead Salma Hayek was so incidental as to be insulting; meanwhile Kenneth Branagh was a disabled villain of the kind you would have hoped had been ditched fifty years before in popular entertainment. What was frustrating was that the TV series had proven the potential of Western steampunk, but nothing on the screen since had lived up to it. See also: The Lone Ranger remake. Music by Elmer Bernstein.