Hollywood raids TV for box-office fireworks
Hoping to grab a big brass ring at the Fourth of July box office, Hollywood has turned to television for inspiration.
Wild Wild West takes its cue from a mid-'60s TV series that brought James Bond's aura - action, gadgetry, womanizing - to the then-popular western format.
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is an expanded edition of the cartoon show on Comedy Central that's been titillating youngsters and irritating parents for the past several seasons.
Regrettably, both pictures deliver less entertainment value than their well-tested formulas promise. They'll earn quick dollars from audiences seeking light holiday fare, but neither is likely to have much staying power - which means the field may be wide open for the next set of would-be blockbusters lined up at the midsummer gate.
"Wild Wild West" is another of Hollywood's intermittent attempts to reinvent the western genre for a new generation. On paper, it looks great: two of today's liveliest stars (Will Smith and Kevin Kline) directed by the maker of "Men in Black" and the "Addams Family" pictures (Barry Sonnenfeld) in a story blending western heroics with high-tech adventure and pitch-dark comedy.
Smith and Kline have admirable energy as the heroes, government agents who squabble with each other while chasing a mad scientist (Kenneth Branagh) bent on conquering America with weapons as surrealistic as they are scary.
But their skills are no match for the triteness of the action scenes - haven't we seen enough fiery explosions and head-butting fistfights by now? - and the flatness of the dialogue, which sinks into racial slurs and disability jokes every time it runs out of better ideas. That happens constantly, even though no fewer than six writers cooked up the screenplay. Ace cinematographer Michael Ballhaus makes the picture look better than it deserves to.
"South Park" has the advantage of being childish and offensive by design instead of by accident. It's about a bunch of grade-school kids who sneak into an NC-17 movie that teaches them even more obscenities than they already know, outraging their parents and sparking (among other things) a journey to Hades, a visit with Saddam Hussein, and a full-scale war with Canada.
As immature and obnoxious as much of "South Park" is, it pauses occasionally to make a serious point - suggesting that violence is a greater social scourge than cuss words, for instance - and parts of it are wildly inventive in an idiotic sort of way. Traditional moviegoers may despise it, but worse fare can be found slouching through multiplexes in the age of Austin Powers.
*'Wild Wild West,' rated PG-13, contains violent action and strong sexual innuendo. 'South Park,' rated R, contains extremely foul sexual and scatological humor.