The Thrice-Done Film of the ’90s: What Jim West, Zorro, and Mrs Peel Have in Common

High on the list of things I don’t often say: I was watching Wild Wild West the other night. (It was on Netflix Instant, don’t judge me.) There is nothing remotely defensible about the film, of course: it’s clear that some sort of homage is being attempted, though no one in the film seems to be clear on what kind of homage it should be. Will Smith is being Will Smith, Kevin Kline is a treasure as always, and somehow Kenneth Brannagh is in the movie, through no fault of his own except for the fact that he ostensibly signed a contract to be in it. It’s steampunk in the vaguest definition of the term, full of lewd dialogue that isn’t earned, and does not pretend toward any kind of class whatsoever.

Yet in that hazy fog, images and wayward dialogue began to coalesce, and I had a pointless sort of epiphany: this was part of a special breed of film that the 1990’s loved churning out. A breed that bears examination for its patent ridiculosity. (Is that a word? It should be.)

Wild Wild West was based on a 1965 television show of the same name. It had its own cult following, a predecessor to the likes of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., part sci-fi, part western. The film made by Barry Sonnenfeld bares practically no resemblance to its parent show outside of basic conceit; Jim West and Artemus Gordon are both agents for President Grant, and they have a cool train that they use to ride across America and stop bad guys.

Sonnenfeld was keen to use Smith in the title role because he’d enjoyed working with him so much on Men in Black. When Smith asked him how he planned to change the title character to a black man—problematic considering that the character is a cowboy and the plot takes place directly after the Civil War—Sonnenfeld insisted that it would all be fine and they could make it work. How they made it work was to burden the script with awful jokes about racism, intended to poke fun at the absurdity, but ultimately making half of the humor in the film wince-worthy at best.

How did parents explain this to their children?

How did parents explain this to their children?

The rest of the laugh lines in the film are akin to softcore pornography jokes. All sorts of commentary about “hard pumping” prosthetics for the wheelchair-bound villain (what is political correctness?), jibes at Artemus’ fake buckwheat-filled lady parts, and even combo zingers where West insists that drumming on a woman’s breasts is how people communicate in his native land of Africa. It’s hard not to stare at the movie as it plays, jaw dropped in utter… well, horror isn’t quite the word I’m looking for, but you get the gist.

And Kenneth Branagh is somehow in the film. No hints as to what possessed him to take the part of Dr. Arliss Loveless; still he gives it his all, in an oddly satisfying way.

But despite this train wreck (heh, see what I did there?) of a flick, there are other films that resemble Wild Wild West in both structure and execution. The second award in this category goes out to The Avengers. No, not that shot of pure, superhero-fueled adrenaline—the film based on the 1960s British television show. (I’m seeing a old TV-shaped puzzle here…)

The Avengers is a show that bridges a lot of fandom gaps: devotees of spy tales, heroic female characters, sci-fi and fantasy, there are very few people who don’t love this show if they’ve ever seen it. Throughout its run, John Steed had several partners (they weren’t all even female), but the audience favorite has always been Mrs Peel. Funnily enough, no matter how often she and Steed flirted and were generally fabulous together, the person who Steed actually dated on the show was his next partner, Tara King. Still, if you’re thinking of that famous silhouette and the champagne drinking, it’s John Steed and Emma Peel that you’re thinking of.

The 1998 film starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman is… awful. There’s no way around it. It has the outline of the show, but none of its charm or psychedelic wackiness. That’s sad enough all by itself, but what’s more wrenching is the fact that they managed to get two glorious lead actors and misuse them entirely.

So I'm thinking of taking that Voldemort role after all. What do you think, Uma?

So I'm thinking of taking that Voldemort role after all. What do you think, Uma?

Of course, the film decided it would finally “give fans what they wanted” and paired Steed and Mrs Peel off, which was a shame because after having done the absolute bare minimum of character work, it was hard to figure out why the audience was supposed to care. What it did lead to was, yet again, a script absolutely dripping with pointless innuendos. (I’m still trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be getting out of the exchange, “Is the pot warm?” “Always.”) Practically every line of dialogue between Steed and Mrs Peel can be taken in a sexual way, because that’s how men and women interact, don’t you know?

And Sean Connery is the villain. You know, we have to get these incredibly respectable U.K. actors in there to make the whole trip legit.

Which brings me to the third installment of this odd little trilogy, by far the best in the exercise: The Mask of Zorro.

While Zorro has been all over the silver screen for decades, I would argue that the 1998 movie owes a lot to the 1957 television show. It maintains a certain level of camp, and just the right amount of swashbuckling to prevent the film from falling into a slapstick abyss. There’s Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas exchanging a lot of sexy dialogue, and dancing, and having that sword fight with her in her nightgown, yet again proving that there was nothing in a 90s script that couldn’t be solved by throwing lots of sexual cues at it.

There was also Anthony Hopkins… do I really need to say it? What is going on here with this all-important niche for some Spectacular Elder Statesman of Serious Screen Acting?

What The Mask of Zorro did right, that the first two films left out entirely, was aim for some sense of emotional relevancy. In The Avengers, Mrs Peel ends up the subject of evil Connery’s desires to give John Steed something to worry about (and we won’t bother getting into the big no-no that is in the feminism department because it’s just too obvious). Jim West has parents who died in a freed slave community due to Loveless’ munitions testing, but it’s barely mentioned, and clearly only there to give West a reason to care. The Mask of Zorro is the story of a family: a man who lost his wife and daughter to a greedy villain, who trains a young ruffian to take his place and defend the land and people he loves, winning back his daughter in the process.

So The Mask of Zorro may be popcorn fluff… but it’s damned enjoyable popcorn fluff. That might make you a little teary by the end.

What? You're totally crying right now. Shut up.

What? You're totally crying right now. Shut up.

There are films that were not based on old television shows that made a lot of the same choices scripting-wise, what with the innuendos and weird alternate histories and awkward exotic locales. But it’s fun to consider these three genre offerings and think about what the filmmakers were going for, why this was a model they were giving a resounding “yes” to every time. At least it makes a little sense out of the madness… even if it can’t make terrible films any better.

And the world now has the “Wild Wild West” rap. I mean, that’s… something?


Emily Asher-Perrin is just glad that Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh went on to star in The Road to El Dorado. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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