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In any event, Summer of Sam has very little to do with the psychological effects of a killer loose in the city. Its real subject is the violence of lynch mobs. In a far-fetched twist, Vinny's none-too-bright pals conclude that their old friend Ritchie is the Son of Sam -- largely because he now sports a blond Mohawk, plays punk rock at a club on the Bowery and hardly ever stops by anymore for a slice of pizza and a beer. In the end, the assembled morons go after Ritchie. But in Spike Lee's view this has nothing to do with the Berkowitz case itself: If these mindless barbarians can savage one of their own, it says here, imagine what they'd do to somebody they already hate -- a black or a Puerto Rican. Thus does Lee once more evoke the ghost of Yusuf Hawkins.

Where some viewers see belligerence and shaky melodrama, others are bound to find social truth. After all, Lee is a moviemaker who, in his best work, tackles tough social issues head-on -- interracial romance in Jungle Fever, the burdens of greatness in Malcolm X, racism itself in Do the Right Thing. But even staunch Lee fans may find Summer of Sam disappointing. Here is America's most heralded and possibly most talented minority filmmaker diddling around with caricature and race-baiting when he could be aiming higher.

Opens July 2.
-- Bill Gallo

WILD WILD WEST
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
It won't take long for anyone familiar with the original Wild, Wild West from television to notice that something is not right with the listless new Barry Sonnenfeld-directed film version. Yes, the film features Will Smith in the role of James West, and Kevin Kline as his cerebral sidekick, Artemus Gordon. But that's about it. For starters, the filmmakers were unable -- or unwilling -- to use any but a trace of Richard Markowitz's catchy opening theme from the TV show, substituting instead a far stodgier number from veteran composer Elmer Bernstein. With costs reportedly running as high as $187 million, you'd think the price for the original theme would have been in there somewhere.

The film version appears immediately inferior to the television series in other ways, too. One of the most memorable aspects of the original show was its episodic structure. The creators were obviously inspired by the Saturday serials of the 1930s and '40s that ended each week with a cliffhanger. On television, each hourlong show seemed to incorporate several serials, with each segment building to a suspenseful high point. Obviously, Sonnenfeld and his screenwriters didn't have to cut away to a commercial at prescribed intervals, but the film might have been greatly improved if they had remembered the inspiration of the serials and built more highs into their storyline. As it is, this version seems remarkably flat, without much suspense along the way to its ultimate climax.

The story, as the film tells it, has West and Gordon come together as partners for the first time by the order of President Grant (also played by Kline), and it is a meeting of opposites: West has never encountered a fight he didn't want to join, whereas Gordon feels that he has failed if the situation deteriorates into violence. West's weapons are a powerful right hand and fast guns; Gordon prefers to outfox his opponents with his wits or a mind-boggling array of gadgets and disguises.

Like the series that inspired it, Wild Wild West is a modernist Western; it is not about the settling of the West but about the clash between good and evil. In this case, evil is represented by Dr. Arliss Loveless (played by the deliciously wicked Kenneth Branagh), a mad scientist of the power-hungry variety whose ultimate goal is to see the United States of America destroyed and its wealth divided up among himself and his allies.

As the picture opens, it seems that Loveless, a Rebel soldier who lost his lower half during the war and must putt-putt around in a motorized wheelchair, has kidnapped the great scientists of the world and put them to work helping him conquer the nation. To accomplish this, the half-man/half-machine has constructed a giant galumphing militaristic spider called the Tarantula, which looks like some reject from the Star Wars films, and points it in the direction of Promontory Point, Utah, where he hopes to capture President Grant and force him to sign over control of the country to him and his allies.

As usual, there are plenty of diversions along the way. Unfortunately, the filmmakers see Wild Wild West less as an update of a futuristic Western than as some early Western precursor to the James Bond films. As a result, there is far too much emphasis on the gadgetry -- the Tarantula, for example, and West's specially outfitted train, called the Wanderer -- and on the bevy of beauties who follow both West and the evil Dr. Loveless around. Among these is Salma Hayek, who spends most of her time onscreen looking like a refugee from a lingerie layout.

As West, Smith performs with his usual unassailable self-confidence, but there is far less for him to be confident about here than has been the case lately. He looks even more dapper than usual in Deborah L. Scott's Western duds, and he moves beautifully, especially in the action sequences. However, for most of the film, he is asked to deliver punchlines that no actor alive could make funny. He must also suffer a number of race-baiting lines from Dr. Loveless, who is meant to be a Southerner and who, at one point, welcomes West to a party he's throwing by observing that he hasn't seen him "in a coon's age."

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