In this 1999 summer movie released by Warner Brothers, Will Smith and Kevin Kline play two US Marshals chasing down evil rebel Kenneth Branagh. James West (Will Smith), a runaway black slave turned ass-whupping government agent, is unwillingly teamed with European American Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), a master of gadgetry who disguises as a Southern lady. Kenneth Branagh plays Dr Arliss Loveless, a crippled Southerner thirsting for revenge against the U.S. president. What's cool about this movie is James West punches the lights out of anybody who calls him "boy" or "nigger". Even when he's about to be lynched by a white mob, he is full of attitude: "... you're too lazy to get off your fat ass to pick your own cotton."
Well, we have the team of the black hero James West and the enlightened white ally Artemus Gordon. Latina Rita Escobar joins them as a hanger-on. On the other side is Dr Arliss Loveless, the man who killed West's family and calls him "boy". Loveless has in his service a bunch of Nordic women (with thick European accents) and an East Asian woman Miss East (Bai Ling).
What is an Asian doing on the side of a white supremacist? Is it because of the perception that Asians tend to ally themselves with whites against other people of color? Miss East pretends to seduce West to position him for Loveless' white snipers. At the crucial moment, she says, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet", but Will Smith foils her treachery.
In another scene, James West battles one of Arliss' white henchmen. The henchman shows some kungfu moves and says, "I learnt this from a Chinaman." What would someone in a white racist organization have to do with a Chinaman? Is this a comment on current race relations (as opposed to the actual Wild Wild West)? A perception that at least some European Americans who reject African Americans find Asians acceptable in some way?
Native Americans occupy a somewhat ambivalent position in the movie. A Native American man joins Loveless' cause. Again, what is a Native American doing on the side of a white supremacist? Our black hero has to fight the Native American and kill him. However, West tells Gordon, after he ran away from slavery as a boy, he was raised by Native Americans. Thus, Native Americans are positioned in this movie as both allies and enemies to African Americans. Like some past cowboy movies supposedly devoid of political messages, Wild Wild West may carry a hidden commentary on current race relations.The black-white-Latino-(maybe Native American) coalition versus the white-Asian-Native American coalition?
Salma Hayek's character, Rita Escobar, is an airhead by all measures. She always needs to be rescued and gets the male characters into trouble. Artemus rescues Rita from a cage in Loveless's bedroom and takes her with him and James. When Loveless catches up with them (he is not after Rita, he is after the agents) Rita panics and releases Artemus' sleep bomb which he meant to use on Loveless. As a direct result of her stupidity, all of them are caught by Loveless and the men nearly lost their heads, literally.She never provides any real assistance to the men.
Rita also falls into the stereotype of the female who uses her sexuality to get what she wants from males. When she boards the government train carrying the US Marshals, James wants her to leave. Then she starts hollering "I am a half-naked young woman..." upon which the train operator says she can stay. She tells James and Artemus she is looking for her father, Dr Escobar, who was kidnapped by Loveless. It turns out that Dr Escobar is her husband. At the end of the film, she admits she told them the lie to get their help. We were seeing less of such outdated, stereotypical portrayals of women in the 90s, but Wild Wild West brings it back in full force.