‘Wild Wild West’ Is Way Weirder Than You Remember

The only reason Wild Wild West isn’t known around the world as the movie where Will Smith showed his balls on camera is because no one saw Wild Wild West in the first place.

Surely if Wild Wild West had been a sizable hit instead of one of the most notorious flops of the last 50 years, this scene would be extremely famous. Instead, the online discussion of this unexpected moment is mostly limited to a collection of obscure Twitter threads and Reddit pages like “How is Will Smith's Butt/Testicles/Penis on display in a PG13 movie?”

Good question! I’ll do you one further: How is the scene where Will Smith’s Butt/Testicles/Penis are on display just available on YouTube? (I should note this clip may qualify as slightly NSFW. Viewer discretion is wicky-wicky advised.)

Released 25 years ago this week, Wild Wild West is certainly not a secret masterpiece. Frankly, it is a mess. But it is a good deal stranger than you might remember — and not just because the Fresh Prince gets jiggy with it in this particular scene.

In fact, leering at scantily clad men and women is practically a motif in this film. The camera also focuses repeatedly on co-star Salma Hayek Pinault naked rear in one sequence, and cuts away to a closeup of Bai Ling’s tush in another. (She even hitches up her dress so the audience can get a better look at it in closeup.) The bad guy, an inventor of steampunk monstrosities, has a machine that resembles a giant metal penis that pistons back and forth in extremely sexual fashion.

Wild Wild West is surely one of the hornier movies to ever receive a PG-13 (for “action violence, sex references and innuendo” — not even a mention of all the butts!) and to receive a massive cross-promotional campaign with Burger King. The fast food giant marketed a line of “Big Kids Meals” around the movie, and sold sunglasses modeled after the ones Will Smith wore in the film to children.

“Hey kids, get your parents to buy you these cool sunglasses! And then after that, get them to take you to the movie where Will Smith (or maybe Will Smith’s Butt/Testicles/Penis double?) hangs dong!”

The suggestive sexual humor is especially bizarre given Wild Wild West’s source material: A four-season CBS TV series from the mid-1960s about the adventures of a cowboy secret agent named Jim West (Robert Conrad) and his gadget and disguise maker, Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin). The Wild Wild West TV series had a little humor, and the West character was clearly inspired by James Bond, then at his height of pop-culture relevance. But The Wild Wild West was a network television series in the mid-1960s, meaning it alluded to the sorts of innuendos and edgy violence of the 007 films in only the tamest ways.

The script for the Wild Wild West movie, which is credited to four screenwriters and a story by Jim and John Thomas (the men who created the Predator franchise) took the material in a much bigger, broader, butt-forward direction. Instead of espionage and thrills, the film ratcheted up the bawdy humor and the scale of the action, until its versions of West and Gordon (played by Smith and Kevin Kline) were battling a massive robotic spider in Monument Valley.

If Wild Wild West is remembered for anything in movie nerd circles these days, it’s the spider. (Actually if it’s remembered for anything, it might be that Smith choose to make it over The Matrix, he could have played Neo but decided he would be better served six-gunnin’ this, brother runnin’ this instead of bending spoons.) For decades, writer/director Kevin Smith has told a story about working on Tim Burton’s never-filmed Superman movie, and his numerous meetings with that movie’s producer, Jon Peters.

Despite the fact that Peters had previously produced Burton’s Batman, Peters seemingly knew nothing about Superman, and told Smith to write him a script where the Man of Steel never wore his signature costume, never flew through the air, and battled a giant spider in the third act. Why a giant spider? Because, Peters told Smith, spiders are “the fiercest killers in the animal kingdom.”

Smith was baffled by the request but acquiesced. Burton’s Superman Lives eventually died, and Smith moved on to other projects. A few years later, he was dumbfounded when he went to watch Wild Wild West, also produced by Peters, only to see the heroes battle a ... giant (robotic) spider.

It doesn’t make any more sense in Wild Wild West than it would have in Tim Burton’s Superman. But then very little about Wild Wild West makes sense; it is a collection of jarringly different tones. Some scenes play like Bond in the Old West — but not the Sean Connery Bonds that inspired the original The Wild Wild West TV series. The movie feels more like the late Roger Moore 007s, where the franchise became a cartoon parody of itself and Bond would sometimes disguise himself as a goddamn clown and pigeons did double takes at his wacky antics.

That’s never more in evidence than in the scenes involving the inventor of the film’s giant mechanical spider, the fiendish (and legless) Dr. Arliss Loveless, played by Kenneth Branagh with an accent that makes Foghorn Leghorn sound like a restrained Southern gentleman.

Other parts of Wild Wild West openly tackle the racism of 1860s America. Loveless’ henchman is a Confederate general who apparently slaughtered an entire African-American community that included Jim West’s family. Occasionally, characters will insert a racial epithet into their dialogue — but then a few moments later, Kline’s Artemus Gordon will be talking about how to create perfect artificial breasts for a disguise as a prostitute.

Will Smith makes zero attempt to act like a man living 100+ years in the past; his speech is peppered with contemporary colloquialisms and he drops the most embarrassing one-liners — just before he defeats a dude with a knife he proudly declares “No more Mr. Knife Guy!” Then on a dime he’ll start burning with righteous anger over the racial injustices he endured in his past. The film jumps around faster and harder than a bucking bronco.

Some parts don’t even add up according to their own flimsy rules of pseudoscience. That strange metal collar Smith wears in the image at the top of this article is an elaborate magnet that’s supposed to attract a giant flying circular saw that will decapitate him. He and Kline wind up trapped in these things, running for their lives through a corn field dodging these flying razors. They survive that certain death trap, then bonk collars, which suddenly attracts the two magnets to each other, no matter how far they run away from each other. That’s ... not how magnets work.

And yet in a weird way, that callous disregard for stylistic and logical consistency makes Wild Wild West if not good, then at least memorable. (Okay, definitely not good.) While I have no doubt the film was produced by a committee of executives and creatives, and its final form got shifted countless times by the whims of focus groups and test screenings, what arrived in theaters in June of 1999 does not feel like a homogenized modern blockbuster. It feels like a steampunk fever dream with over-the-top stunts and the occasional flash of nudity.

It kind of sounds interesting when you describe it that way, right? Most terrible blockbusters these days — something like Madame Web, for example — play it much safer than this. And that was made on a far smaller scale than Wild Wild West. (Madame Web: Now there was a movie where the hero fighting a giant spider would have made sense!)

Outside of its catchy closing credits song, Wild Wild West did not have much cultural longevity. A few years ago Smith named it the worst movie he ever made and called it “a thorn in [his] side.” But I’d gladly watch it again over a couple of Smith’s other botches, especially the ones like Suicide Squad where he plays against type as a dour, emotionally broken man. At least in Wild Wild West he is in full movie-star mode.

Wild Wild West was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, and was conceived an attempt to recreate the lighting in a bottle he and Smith captured two years earlier with the first Men in Black. They clearly did not succeed, but I can’t help but appreciate that they took a big swing at it — amongst the other things swinging around on camera.