A film review by Craig J. Koban June 22, 2010

JONAH HEX j
j
½ 

2010, PG-13, 80 mins.

 

Jonah Hex: Josh Brolin / Quentin Turnbull: John Malkovich / Lilah: Megan Fox / Burke: Michael Fassbender / Lt. Grass: Will Arnett / Lt. Evan: John Gallagher Jr. / Col. Slocum: Tom Wopat / Doc Cross Williams: Michael Shannon / Adleman Lusk: Wes Bentley / Cassie: Julia Jones

Directed by Jimmy Hayward / Screenplay by Neveldine and Taylor / Based on the DC Comics characters by John Albano and Tony Dezuniga

I remember many days of my childhood and early adolescent comic book reading days when I glanced over issues of DC Comics’ Jonah Hex on newsstands, but generally ignored them altogether (my youth was spent focusing on the adventures of Batman and Spider-Man).  

Perhaps much of this had to do with the notion that Hex – the creation of artist Tony DeZuniga and writer John Albana, first appearing in All-Star Western # 10 from 1971 – was not a proverbial spandex-clad hero that was appealing to a younger reader.  Hex was more of an anti-superhero, a surly, cynical, and world-weary bounty hunter that was horribly scarred on one side of his face.  The original stories – after having read some of them recently – was gritty and raw, owing much of their flavor to the Man With No Name Western iconography and their creativity to the writers and artists that were given free reign to conjure up stories that worked against the grain of super hero adventures. 

A film adaptation of this Civil War-era outlaw seemed like a novel idea, especially for those looking for a bit of counter-programming from filmmakers interested in appropriating little known comic book properties.  Certainly, JONAH HEX had serious potential to conjure up a radically new western mythology for contemporary filmgoers, and despite a very competent and decent cast and a few instances of absurd curiosity, the film is a short, rushed, confusing, messy, and unremarkable – but never dull – time waster.   From what I have read, there is a compelling world from the original Hex comics that lends itself to big screen treatment, but after sitting through the insufferably short – 80 minutes, including credits – adventure, one gets the sense that the studio and filmmakers on board wished to shave off as much of the compelling comic book intrigue of the character.  What we get is a half-hearted and lifeless film that appears to be hastily rushed into theatres without fully feeling like a final product.  It’s not that the film is a disastrous bomb (as many recent critics have gleefully pointed out), but rather that it’s just fragmentary and cobbled together: it feels like a sloppy first edit, not a final one ready for release. 

The film’s story is grounded in 1876 during the post-Civil War America and very quickly establishes the origin of Hex (Josh Brolin), a former Confederate soldier that has let his conscience and good will get in the way of his duties.  His opposition is a vicious and cruel Confederate general name Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) who has had enough of Hex’s moral righteousness.  He captures Hex, ties him up, and forces him to watch the brutal execution of his wife and child by burning them alive.  To add insult to Hex’s emotional wounds, he then proceeds to take a piping hot iron and scars and burns the one side of his face...to remind him of the person behind the carnage.   

Remarkably, Hex survives the hellish ordeal, but he is now a disfigured freak of a gunslinger that has decided to live a life of a fearless and determined bounty hunter.  Oh, he also has managed to developed the supernatural ability to touch dead people, wake them up from the six-feet-under slumber, and speak to them (yeah…cool).  He received his gifts from – who else – Indian shaman (only in westerns are Indians capable of giving one supernatural abilities).  Hex has very few friends, but he does take solace in the bedside company of a whore named Lilah (Megan Fox), dubiously one of the most clean-skinned, well manicured, and exquisitely made up prostitutes in western film history (I doubt that Clinique cosmetic products existed in the late 19th Century wild west).  One of the even bigger mysteries of the film is how a luminous creature like her is sexually and emotionally attracted to the very hideous looking Hex. 

Meanwhile, the dastardly and insane Turnbull has a serious axe to grind with the U.S. government: He decides to hatch out a terrorist plot that would destroy Washington D.C. and end the presidency of U.S. Grant (Aidan Quinn).  With the assistance of his cheerfully psychotic henchmen, Burke (Michael Fassbender), Turnbull is able to secure the blueprints and build an "Ultimate Weapon" that involves – as far as the film’s spotty script explains – shooting multiple, large scale cannon balls on to the target and then later shooting out a smaller, gold-hued glowing orb that triggers a calamitous, explosive discharge with the capabilities to destroy a whole city.  Turnbull is determined to use this device on Washington during Independence Day, but with the President enlisting Hex to track and find the nefarious villain, you just know that these two former soldiers-in-arms will have to settle their score once and for all. 

Okay… I will dispense with the positives first: JONAH HEX definitively benefits from a very game and very good cast that rise above the inherent mediocrity of the script: they nearly save the film.  Brolin has the type of mug and grizzled disposition that is born for a western, and I liked the way he underplays a very, very broad role.  He also has a great snarl, a raspy, Clint-Eastwood inflection, and the ability to utter what would be horrendous one-liners with a real, flavorful intensity.  Best of all, he has a swagger and gritty charm as Hex: he manages to keep the lunacy of the film afloat while modestly winking at the audience, letting us know that he’s in on the joke.  Malkovich, on the other hand, relishes in hamming up his disgruntled villain with a campy – but soft-spoken - ferocity that only he can muster.  Then there is the perpetually corseted (and appealingly sweaty) Megan Fox as the obligatory love interest here and the object of every swooning teen viewers' (and some 35-year-old film critic’s) desire.  Fox is, to be fair, feisty and tough in a mournfully underwritten and measly role.  That, and she is very, very believable as…a whore. 

Michael Fassbender (one of the most underrated of contemporary actors) fares much better and exudes an erratic and malicious delight as his blood-loving, derby hat wearing baddie; he has considerable fun mugging for attention with Malkovich’s Turnbull.   Fassbender injects some much needed caginess and unhinged unpredictability into the film.  The rest of the cast – including other actors like Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Wes Bentley, and Michael Shannon) are reduced to blink- and-you’ll-miss-them cameos.  Even more regrettable is how the film squanders the comic potential of Will Arnett (capable of being effortless hilarious) as a somewhat bumbling Union soldier that assists Hex’s mission.  Arnett is utterly misused here playing a relative straight, throwaway role. 

The film is beset by other large problems, like its soullessly unfocused screenplay that seems like it's galloping to the end credits without a care in the world for telling a complete story.  It’s difficult to tell an involving and commanding narrative about Hex’s comic universe in an hour and 20 minutes.  The editing of the film is choppy and undisciplined, not to mention that it makes some would-be intriguing aspects confusing.  There are too many ideas in the film that are never made abundantly clear, like, for example, scenes between Hex and Turnbull that occur in some sort of quasi-parallel universe where the two duke it out in a naturalistic arena made up of red sand and psychedelic colors.  I am assuming this is meant to reflect what is to come or what is occurring in the real world, but the film is so abysmally lacking in follow-through and even basic exposition that you just never know.  

Again, the film is never tedious with the likes of Brolin, Malkovich, and Fassbender manning the helm, and there are individual moments of campy exhilaration (like an early moment when Hex shreds his enemies away with a dual, horse mounted gatling gun, albeit in a sanitized, bloodless, PG-13 fashion; this film should have been an unhinged R).  CRANK creators Neveldine and Taylor - who harnessed wanton mayhem and perverse, testosterone-induced carnage in those films with elation - provide Hex’s script and the film also has an able-minded director in Jimmy Hayward (who directed HORTON HEARS A WHO and worked on the animation for many of the great Pixar catalogue).  However, it’s impossible to decipher whether the movie’s failings are their faults or the result of tinkering studio brass (Neveldine and Taylor left the project due to differences early on).  Ultimately, I got the impression that Warner Brothers hacked the film to shreds and – instead of postponing and retooling it – unceremoniously dumped it into cineplexes when it was not ready for prime time.  There are good pieces here, but they are just not assembled together to create a cohesive and enjoyable whole.  In the end, JONAH HEX is a western/comic book film that’s as twisted and deformed as the title character’s face.

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