Will Smith in ‘Wild Wild West’ (Warner Bros. Pictures)
After the success of Bad Boys, Independence Day, and Men in Black, Will Smith was Hollywood’s king when the summer of 1999 rolled around. His reign was set to continue with the release of the big-budget, 4th of July weekend extravaganza Wild Wild West. That film’s triumph was not to be, however, as the would-be blockbuster — a sci-fi western mashup based on the ’60s TV show — crashed and burned with critics and audiences. As Smith now says in a new interview, it was a tough blow that helped him rethink his career.
Speaking at a Cannes Lions festival session on Tuesday — and as reported by The Hollywood Reporter — Smith confessed that, with Wild Wild West, his hunger for fame and stardom overtook his artistic concerns.
“I wanted to win and be the biggest movie star, and what happened was there was a lag – around Wild Wild West time – I found myself promoting something because I wanted to win versus promoting something because I believed in it…. It’s now in the hand of fans. I have to be in tune with their needs and not trick them into going to see Wild Wild West.”
It’s not the first time Smith has invoked Wild Wild West as a career low point. In an actor’s roundtable for The Hollywood Reporter last November (alongside Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Ruffalo, Benicio Del Toro and Joel Edgerton), the superstar discussed how the 1999 flop — which he opted to make rather than taking on the role of Neo in The Matrix — helped him reshape his outlook on success and failure.
“The first time where it didn’t work the way that I wanted was Wild Wild West. I was coming off of Men in Black, and everything was like, ‘Oh, we can’t lose,’ you know? I was like, ‘Oh! Tragedy!’… With a movie, it’s like you never know; you can love it, you can have done what you think is the best work you’ve ever done, and you put it out on that Friday, and everybody hates it — and you’ve taken a year.”
Nonetheless, as he told Esquire in early 2015, no matter how hard Wild Wild West’s reception hurt, it was nothing compared to his later misfire, 2013’s M. Night Shyamalan-directed After Earth. “Wild Wild West was less painful than After Earth because my son was involved in After Earth and I led him into it. That was excruciating,” he said.
Even when speaking to Entertainment Weekly at the time of the film’s premiere, Smith sounded like he knew the film – which eventually grossed $113.8 million domestically, against a reported $170 million budget – was on shaky ground, especially with regards to some of its more racially-charged jokes.
“We went out on a limb with a couple of these scenes. I sure hope people think this is funny, because this is one of those setups that can either be hilarious or it can be something people will hate for the rest of their lives…We’ll see on Big Willie Weekend what people think.”
It turned out that “Big Willie Weekend” was a bust. But at least we’ll always have Smith’s legendarily corny Wild Wild West theme song: