In the history of big-budget cinema, we seem to hold an extra space in our hearts for the movies that had a ton of expectation, massive dollar signs, big-name stars, and plenty of hype which ended up just completely bombing. Almost as much as the award-winners and huge successes, these movies tend to become part of cinematic lore for how badly the studio misread the situation. One of the tentpole movies in this category starred Will Smith and it acts as a cautionary tale for getting out over your skies when it comes to putting something different on the big screen. There is still a chance to catch it on streaming, though not for long. Wild, Wild West is heading off Netflix on March 31st. Get it now while the getting is good.
Wild, Wild West stars Will Smith as Captain Jim West in this newfangled approach to post-Civil War “history”. He’s a gunslinger who is tasked with hunting down and arresting a Confederate general, Bloodbath McGrath. The movie has fun with its names, something you can see right off the bat. Wild, Wild West posits a United States historical timeline in which steampunk is alive and well, with folks like evil scientists making crazy advancements to technology, things well beyond the scope of what was actually possible at the time. It’s just one of the reasons there was a bit of futuristic uncanny valley with this film.
Will Smith, along with Kevin Kline’s Artemus Gordon is tasked with finding McGrath, as well as a mad scientist who is at the heart of building some tech that threatens the United States and the world as a whole. Along the way, there are gunfights, one-liners, train dodges, more one-liners, explosions, Will Smith rap songs, more one-liners, a giant metal spider, rocket explosions, cross-dressing, and a whole lot more. It’s a beautiful mess of a film that managed to miss the mark on nearly every level. Check out Will Smith in the trailer for Wild, Wild West.
See what I mean? You almost can’t look away from this movie in all of its weird glory. Will Smith has the suave action hero part down here, playing it mostly over-the-top though I’m not sure this was the original intention. And look, Will Smith has admitted as much when talking about the movie in retrospect. He’s called it his “worst movie” without all that much hesitation and I’m not sure fans would necessarily disagree on that front.
To make matters worse, during the time leading into this movie Will Smith was offered a role in another movie, one that took a decidedly different path. That was because he was considered for the lead in The Matrix as Neo. Whoops. Wild, Wild West couldn’t have been a more different action movie if they had tried.
In addition to Will Smith and Kevin Kline, Wild, Wild West did feature some other notables. Kenneth Branagh is on board as the mad scientist Arliss Loveless and there is Salma Hayek as Rita Escobar. Ted Levine is on as McGrath, lending a certain creepiness he brought over from Silence of the Lambs and Bai Ling is here too. The movie was directed by Barry Sonnefield who Smith had worked with on Men in Black.
So how did Will Smith and Wild, Wild West fare at the box office and with critics? Well, not good at all. The movie had a reported budget somewhere in the $200 million dollar range deepening on the estimate when marketing costs were factored in. It clawed back just $222 million at the box office. From a studio perspective, this is a disaster of the highest order. Getting back to even on a movie this size is actually considered a sizable loss. These movies are supposed to finance others productions which is factored into things. And some estimates have it with a budget closer to $240 million which would have this just as a net loss. There’s a reason this is used as one of the shining examples of a box office bomb.
But was it really this bad? Probably not. Wild, Wild West isn’t by any means good. But it did suffer mightily under the weight of massive expectations and missed the mark. From a rewatchable standpoint? I think you are going to want to give it a try. This Will Smith movie has a special place in Hollywood history. You can’t say that about just any film.