Sep 7 2012 11:00am

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Peter Tijger
1. Peter-Tijger
Lol, funny article.

I hated the Wild wild west, expected to hate Avengers too, so I have never bothered to watch it. But I actually really like the Zorro movie. Can't help it. Of course it's nothing more than a popcorn movie and maybe a silly one at that. But it's good silliness......wrong silliness in a good way? Hmmm.

And it has Catherine Zeta Jones. At the time the single hottest looking actress around. And Antonio Banderas is a cool dude too. The horse is funny, the adversaries are pathetic.....Hopkins is in the movie.
Ah hell, they already got me with Catherine Zeta Jones.
Deana Whitney
2. Braid_Tug
Hollywood just keeps going over the same ideas over, and over, and over...
Yet the more often it happens the less interesting it gets. Along with the whole "dumbing down" aspect that seems to be considered necessary.

Good review
Shelly wb
3. shellywb
That was the way Hollywood handled all their remakes in the 90s. They borrowed a title and costumes from the original, and proceeded to mess up what made it popular.

But I think it's just Hollywood. I mean, look at what they've done with so many book adaptations over the years. They think they know how to improve upon classics. (They sit around and can't believe that no one else realized it, because it's always been obvious, you know? Giant spiders!)
Nick Rogers
4. BookGoblin
I never hated Wild Wild West. Sure, it was dumb, and corny, and just smacked of everything that was wrong with entertainment in the 90's (which you've already covered quite well)...but it was also an acceptable amount of fun. I got back my $5 matinee price and was only slightly offended by the cost of popcorn. No return on that investment, but I didn't get swindled either.

I'll cover Zorro next...always liked it, didn't care much for the sequels. They seemed unnecessary.

Now The Avengers. The real Avengers. First of all, that movie's primary henchman was portrayed by Eddie Izzard. Score, win, game-over. Second, I don't see how people can say it didn't capture the psychedelic vibe of the original. Multicolored Teddy Bears, check. Inflatable Hamster Balls crossing the Thames, check. A supervillain plot that features Sir Connery in a kilt and an insane weather manipulation plan straight out of a Danger Mouse cartoon??? TRIPLE CHECK.

I grew up watching episodes from The New Avengers (anyone confused yet?) with a few episodes from the Tara King era Avengers thrown in to confuse my ten-year-old brain. It was in color, Steed and King were flirty all the time, and the WIERDEST SHIT happened an no one batted an eye.

That was obviously the vibe the movie crew were going for and stylistically they did pretty good.

Ralph Finnes and Uma Thurman were simply mis-cast and mis-directed. Finnes didn't know if he was John Steed or Number 6 from the Prisoner or Voldemort before the fall. Uma Thurman had obviously never seen a single episode of Emma Peel, and had no idea what she was shooting for; so she went with a cross between her Pulp Fiction character and a Bond Girl.

I watch The Avengers about once a year. It's not a great movie, and it has some obvious holes (that you described very well), but it WAS psychedelic, and it was reasonably true to the verve of later (read post Peel) episodes of the original show.

And it had Eddie FREAKING Izzard.
john mullen
5. johntheirishmongol
Hard to argue with any of those assessments. WWW was horrid, had no feel for what made the show fun to watch. The could have even gone more steampunk with it and that would have been fine. But Smith was terrible casting and the script was too modern.

Avengers had a terrible script and it wasn't well acted. Fiennes and Thurman had no chemistry and Connory was sleepwalking thru it.

Zorro had enormous chemistry and it was a coming out for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who was gorgeous and fun. Antonio Banderas had just hit with a big film. The movie worked
James Whitehead
6. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
I liked Wild Wild West simply for the actors but do agree it wasn't much of a film. I never did see The Avengers movie but do love the series & Mrs. Peel is definitely the best.

I did see, however, Zorro, and thoroughly enjoyed it. And I do have to agree with Bakema NL@1 about Catherine Zeta Jones. I've loved her since seeing her on the Darling Buds of May series. But all the cast were great fun. The movie didn't take itself too seriously & was just what it should've been: a fun summer movie.

Zorro is why I remain hopeful that movie remakes can work. Wild Wild West, and The Avengers (the Brit one, that is), are why I wish they'd stop making remakes.

7. wiredog
No hints as to what possessed him to take the part of Dr. Arliss Loveless;

But we have our $u$picion$...
Fredrik Coulter
8. fcoulter
Just being historically picky:

"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."

That was the one part of the movie that didn't need to be explained. The iconic movie picture of the cowboy being a white male riding off into the sunset isn't historically accurate. Probably due to lack of opportunities among black men in the east after the war, blacks were way over represented among cowboys. So having a black cowboy might look strange by movie standards, it wasn't at all strange in the real world.

The movie still sucked.
will shetterly
9. willshetterly
As a fan of all three TV shows:

The Avengers movie should've starred Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh.

A black cowboy could've worked fine in The Wild, Wild West, given that so many cowboys were black, and there were black field officers in the Civil War and black officers with the Buffalo Soldiers. Hasty research reminds me that the first black West Point grad was in 1877, a fine time for the Wild, Wild West.

Zorro would've been better if the director hadn't over-ruled the writers on a few bits, but it's loverly.
will shetterly
10. willshetterly
Crossposted with fcoulter. Which gives me an excuse to add that I haven't had the heart to watch either the Wild Wild West or the Avengers movies.
Ed Dravecky
11. dravecky
Wild Wild West producer Jon Peters is the reason Jim West has to fight a giant spider... and it's a leftover idea from his insistence that Superman fight a giant spider at the climax of Superman Lives. Just one of the many brilliant Jon Peters innovations (Lex Luthor's adorable space dog, anybody?) that drove Kevin Smith from the film.
Chris Hawks
12. SaltManZ
Absolutely loved Zorro. Zeta-Jones' "very vigorous, Father" has been an in-joke of my wife and I for a dozen years now.

I enjoyed WWW at the time, but have no desire to see it again.

Avengers is one of the few movies I tried but failed to make it through. It was just off-the-wall WEIRD and nonsensical and trippy and still managed to be dull and boring.
13. Cybersnark
Another factor in Zorro's favour is that, unlike WWW and Avengers, it wasn't a reboot; it was a re-launch. It was spelled-out in the script that this is the new Zorro, taking over from a hero who has clearly had his own adventures even before the prologue, thus freeing the move from needing to overwrite existing Zorro continuity (whichever version individual fans prefer ).
Emily Asher-Perrin
14. EmilyAP
@fcoulter and willshetterly - I should have been more specific when talking about Smith's reactions to being offered the part, but he was concerned about taking the role as a black man with the film set in that era. It's likely that the problems he was forseeing had more to do with the character interacting with southern Caucasian aristocracy, which is frankly what caused so much of the awful humor the script provided.
15. bding7
Yea, Zorro is basically the sequel to The Dark Knight Rises that we'll never get.
16. Croaker42
You forgot the remake of The Mod Squad. Not SciFi, but still another 90's movie based on a campy 60's show that was utter crap.
Michael Grosberg
17. Michael_GR
You SHOULD feel ashamed for having watched Wild, Wild West. Even if it was on Netflix. I watched it on a flight - I was literally a captive audience - and I still feel slightly ashamed for not having averted my eyes from the screen. It's like those motorists who stop to ogle at an accident scene on the roadside - there's nothing you can do, buddy. Give the casualties a bit of respect, stop staring and move on.
will shetterly
18. willshetterly
@ EmilyAP, have you seen Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead? One of my guilty pleasures. It has a character who could be interpreted as a black James West, though he owes more to Lee Van Cleef, I suspect.

I'm very curious about Tarrantino's Django Unchained.
19. Michael S. Schiffer
@bding7 We more or less already got it, in the form of the Batman Beyond animated series.
April Moore
20. aprildmoore
Good comments and a well-thought-out review. Can't say I disagree with any of it, although I do have to say I liked all the Zorro movies. But of course the first one was still the best, much as with the (excellent) Indiana Jones' movies.
Ashe Armstrong
21. AsheSaoirse
I don't care what anyone says, The Mask of Zorro is just plain fun. Especially in the middle when Antonio is training and he runs off with the mask for the first time. He's so cocky about it and makes such a mess. When he is given the mask legitimately later on, it's all the better.
Michael M Jones
22. MichaelMJones
I'm going to go on record as one of the five people who enjoyed Wild Wild West. Okay, sure, in retrospect it's awful and problematic and painful, but at the same time... It's highly entertaining. Weird inventions, wacky concepts, completely over-the-top scenery-chewing from Smith and Brannagh and Kline, and a giant mechanical fire-breathing tarantula. Call me shallow, but sometimes you just have to go with the big idea and roll with it. And yeah, some of the jokes are both funny and offensive, in the way that makes you laugh and then feel very uncomfortable afterwards, and slightly ashamed.... Man, the more I think about the more I question myself.

But still, it's nowhere near the worst movie I've seen. I watched the Avengers once, and couldn't get through it when it popped up on cable lately.

I'm gonna claim this as one of those really guilty pleasures, and we shall never speak of this again.
23. TomT
Well I've never seen Wild Wild West, didn't hear good things about it so didn't figure it worth seeing.

As for the Avengers movie it falls into a category of late 90's movies I think of as going for style over substance. They are pretty pretty movies with excellent cinimatography but not put together very well. Many of the individual scenes are excellent but the whole just lacks something. That is how I felt about the avengers. It is visually impressive and some individual scenes capture the 60's series. But the doesn't represent the oiginal at all.

And Zorro was just fun. But I generally consider that if I enjoyed a movie I got my monies worth. And I did from Zorro.
24. SueQ
Now see here:
#1 Diana Rigg is THE Mrs. Peel.
#2 I took one look at the new Wild Wild West trailers and decided to buy the DVD's of the ORIGINAL series that I used to watch as a kid.
#3 I love Zorro the original series and nobody can change that --nobody. But I did watch the new movie. A guy in a mask and cape on a horse. Whoo-hee!!
25. PeteyG
Let's not forget The Saint. What the hell was that? Val Kilmer indeed.
26. Boggschaucer
I somehow only saw Avengers out of these three, and I regard it with fond memories because it was the first film I saw after moving to Los Angeles, and we saw it on opening night at Mann's Chinese Theatre, and it hadn't been screened for critics first, so we knew it would be terrible. I remember the stranger sitting next to me seemed stone-faced livid throughout the movie, but my wife and I had a great time: the Teddy Bears make the movie. When there are dead Teddy Bears, our heroes make awful Shakespeare jokes. I've purchased the soundtrack for the movie twice, because I wore out the first CD. It's actually my favorite soundtrack. I always have it in the car with me. It's got Louise Post from Veruca Salt on a couple songs, there's Sinead O'Connor, Grace Jones even, everything is over the top, especially what has become my favorite track ever, Baby Bird's "Bad Twin," which I play for people, telling them it's the greatest song ever. I stand by that, even though I won't deny the song is one of those mediocre "tell-the-plot-of-the-movie" songs, which is usually done by rapping, but not Baby Bird. If I have to pick the one song to listen to for eternity, it will be that one. Yeah, that's how I roll. (P.S., Emily, I love your articles!)

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