Friday, June 18, 2010

Film Review: Jonah Hex

Jonah Hex
Story by William Farmer, Mark Neveldine, and Brian Taylor
Screenplay by Neveldine & Taylor
Directed by Jimmy Hayward

Copyright © Warner Bros.

When I saw the first trailer for Jonah Hex, to say I was underwhelmed is an understatement. They’d taken the plot of The Outlaw Josey Wales, dressed it up in Wild Wild West’s hand-me-downs, and sprinkled it with the visual supernatural sensibilities of Van Helsing. Add Hollywood’s flavor-of-the-month Megan Fox as a whore, delivering her lines with little conviction, my expectations for this film were less than zero. They went into the negative digits when I learned Jonah Hex was from the director of Horton Hears a Who and the screenwriters of the Crank films.

In recent years, HBO’s Deadwood series and films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Appaloosa, the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, and the Australian outback western The Proposition have kept the western genre alive, and in Deadwood’s case, redefined it. But when the opportunity arose to put DC Comic’s scar-faced bounty hunter Jonah Hex on the silver screen, the filmmakers decided that because Hex was a comic book character, they had to make a “comic booky” film of super stunts and super heroics instead of a gritty, realistic period piece.

I was also surprised they added the supernatural elements undoubtedly inspired by Joe R. Lansdale’s and Tim Truman’s trilogy of mini-series for DC’s Vertigo imprint in the 1990s, considering the current series written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti (56 issues, plus one original graphic novel, and counting since 2005) plays it straight (with the exception of a guest appearance by vengeance spirit El Diablo). Jonah Hex hasn’t really been a weird western since 1999.

Winning SF Signal’s free ticket giveaway to see an advance screening, I can say that my initial impressions of Jonah Hex from the trailer were justified.

In the Civil War, Hex (Josh Brolin) fought on the Confederate side under the command of General Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) until his conscience got the better of him and could no longer follow orders to kill unarmed civilians—a decision that forced him to gun down his best friend, and Turnbull’s son, Jeb. Betraying his fellow Rebels to the Union, Hex surrendered, and eventually settled down with a wife and child after the war.

Hex has a few years of domestic bliss before Turnbull and his gang of outlaws appears and murders his family before his eyes. To ensure that Hex remembers the man who destroyed everyone he loved, Turnbull takes a glowing red hot branding iron to the right side of his face.

Discovered by a tribe of Crow Indians, Hex is brought back from the brink of death by a medicine man. In his newly resurrected state, Hex now has the power to bring the dead back to life for brief periods simply by touching and holding onto their bodies, a talent he never possessed in the comics. Why the Crows saved him is unexplained. We don’t see any relationship between Hex and the Crows because there are no scenes with them even conversing.

Hideously scarred, cursed with a strange ability, and having no family left to care for, Hex turns his violent disposition to bounty hunting, occasionally becoming a wanted man himself, and spending time between jobs with the whore Lilah (Fox), who is more than willing to settle down with Hex if he would just give up his guns.

Meanwhile Turnbull plans to avenge the Confederacy against the Union by stealing the secret government weapon called known as the “Nation Killer,” a giant Gatling gun that fires not only cannonballs but fiery “dragonballs” that explode on impact. Mounting this weapon on an ironclad, Turnbull and his cronies will attack Washington D.C. during the centennial celebration on Independence Day.

Aware of the theft of the “Nation Killer,” President Ulysses S. Grant (Aidan Quinn) orders his men to recruit the one man who can stop Turnbull—Jonah Hex.

This is pure James Bond formula filmmaking—the ultimate lone hero/agent, the eye candy babe, the mad villain, the maniacal henchman, the super weapon of mass destruction, the hero’s gadgets (including dynamite firing pistols and Gatling guns mounted on both sides of a horse, which do not frighten the horse into bolting when fired). There’s nothing original or surprising about the story.

As for the characters, aside from Hex there really isn’t any. Under an uncomfortable-looking prosthetic scar, Brolin snarls one-liners in a gravelly voice and guns down his enemies without mercy—as many anti-heroic gunfighters before him have done, but that’s pretty much the extent of his characteristics. Hex is somewhat haunted by the deaths of his family and even has some guilt over the people he’s killed, but he’s not conflicted at all.

Fox’s Lilah is supposed to be Hex’s love interest, but mercifully she’s barely in the film. And when they are on screen together, they have zero chemistry. Lilah’s a whore and Hex treats her like one. He doesn’t ride off into the sunset with her, but with a dog he befriended earlier running beside his horse.

Turnbull is thankfully not a crazy over-the-top supervillain, but Malkovich’s unenthusiastic performance creates a dull villain, prone to monotone monologues. He’s not threatening to Hex, and provides no real antagonistic tension. He just happens to be in Hex’s way.

Also in the cast, Michael Fassbender hams it up as Turnbull’s lackey Burke, and Will Arnett and a barely recognizable Tom Wopat appear in now you see them, now you don’t roles that are little more than cameos.

Neveldine’s and Taylor’s script, beyond its Bond meets The Crow formula, tries too hard to be relevant and topical. Turnbull is referred to as a terrorist, and two of his men are suicide bombers who died with honor on behalf of the cause. Lance Reddick’s Smith (who plays Q to Hex’s Bond) delivers a cringe-inducing line explaining that although Hex fought for the South, he wasn’t pro-slavery and anti-American. We can’t have the audience thinking such things about our anti-hero.

The screenwriters did have the good sense to steal a line from Joe Lansdale’s Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo comic book series. When an outlaw confronts Hex, asking him how he got his scar, he replies “cut myself shaving.”

Hayward’s direction is serviceable, but I am puzzled by his odd choice of inserting a cheesy motion-comic animated sequence detailing Hex’s bounty hunting origin between two live-action scenes in the beginning of the film. It was unnecessary and interrupted the narrative for what? To inform the audience that the film is based on a comic book?

Jonah Hex is a by-the-numbers summer blockbuster popcorn movie, and it doesn’t pretend otherwise, just like hundreds of other mindless action flicks of the past twenty-five years. And what makes an action film enjoyable or not depends on the tastes of the individual viewer. I enjoyed parts of this when I didn’t expect to enjoy any of it. I think Brolin did a good job considering what he had to work with, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him play Hex again, preferably in a gritty, realistic period piece because I think the character deserves better than this.

At least I got some freebees. :-)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Comic Book Review: Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo

Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo
By Joe R. Lansdale, Tim Truman, and Sam Glanzman
Vertigo Comics 1993

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo wasn’t my first experience with weird westerns, but it might as well have been. This is the story that inspired me not only to try my hand at penning weird westerns, but also to read about the history of the Old West—something no schoolteacher or college professor could ever claim. It also set me on the trail to finding every bizarro western I could get my hands on and is thus responsible for Strangecoach as well.

It’s also the first story I ever read written by Champion Mojo Storyteller, Joe R. Lansdale.

I’d been searching for books by Mr. Lansdale ever since I read Stanley Wiater’s Dark Dreamers: Conversations with the Masters of Horror, a birthday present from my brother who encouraged my interest in horror fiction with this collection of interviews featuring such usual suspects as Stephen King and Clive Barker, and several other authors whose books I sought after being introduced to them in these pages.

It was Joe R. Lansdale’s books I was most interested in finding after reading this line from Mr. Wiater’s introduction of the author: “[Mr. Lansdale’s] Western-horror novel Dead in the West reads like Zane Grey’s (and George A. Romero’s) worst nightmare in it’s unflinching descriptions of mutilation and mayhem.” As a fan of Clint Eastwood’s westerns (thanks to my Mom, who insisted Mr. Eastwood played roles other than Dirty Harry, and rented The Good, the Bad & the Ugly on video to prove it to me) and George A. Romero’s living dead flicks (thanks again to my brother, who had no problem warping my young impressionable mind when we were kids, but has since turned his back on Romero’s zombie epics now that he’s a respectable husband and father), Mr. Lansdale sounded like a writer who was up my alley.

But in the suburbs of Long Island, Mr. Lansdale’s books were nowhere to be found in either used or new bookstores. Worse still, the booksellers stared at me with blank expressions when I asked if they carried any of his books, having never heard of him.

So when DC Comic’s Vertigo imprint launched in 1993 with an announcement that Jonah Hex—DC’s scar-faced bounty hunter, whose title survived longer than any other western comic book (92 issues in 1985)—was going to receive a makeover in the hands of Mr. Lansdale and his collaborators, artist Tim Truman (Grimjack) and inker Sam Glanzman in a horrific and humorous adventure of dark magic and western gunplay, I was thrilled that I was finally getting the opportunity to read this author’s work—and on one of my favorite characters too.

Invited to a necktie party he just couldn’t refuse, on account of being trussed up and dragged behind a horse, Jonah Hex is nearly done in by some outlaws when he’s rescued by Slow Go Smith, an older bounty hunter with poor sight and even poorer aim, who manages to kill the outlaws…and most of their horses. Obliged to Slow Go, Jonah accompanies him to Mud Creek, Texas (a fictional town featured in many of Mr. Lansdale’s stories), to collect the reward for the outlaws’ heads.

Mud Creek is, as Hex observes, “a regular paradise—if you was a maggot.” Folks there charge two bits for pictures taken with dead outlaws and prepare picnics to watch hangings, while their sheriff works hard searching for justice at the bottom of a bottle. It’s the perfect environment for Doc “Cross” Williams to ply his trade.

Advertising himself as an alchemist, physician, and paraphysicist, Doc is a pointy-eared, pointy-toothed, goggle-sporting snake oil salesman, traveling across the west in his “Wagon of Miracles” with a trio of circus freaks selling his Sweet Brown Tonic, guaranteed to cure whatever ails folks. He’s also a body snatcher, using parts as ingredients for an elixir much stronger than his tonic—a voodoo potion that turns people into zombies, not the flesh-eating kind, but the obedient kind Doc can command and who suffer from such useful side effects as increased strength and agility.

Unfortunately, Hex and Slow Go are in the wrong place at the wrong time, catching Doc in the corpse-stealing act and trading gunfire with his star zombie—Wild Bill Hickok, who’s a better shot half-dead than he ever was alive. When the smoke clears, Slow Go is a goner, Doc and his troupe are gone, and Hex swears to track them down, avenge his friend, and put Hickok back in the grave where he belongs.

Joe R. Lansdale’s one-of-a-kind imagination fills Two-Gun Mojo with strong characterization, funny dialogue, relentless action sequences, and unexpected moments. Even if he had left out the supernatural elements, it would still qualify as a horror story of frontier life in its depiction of violence, bigotry, and general absence of human decency.

Hex’s point-of-view narrative drives the story with a wicked sense of humor that remains intact no matter how dangerous or strange the situation. The origin of Hex’s scar becomes a running gag as he offers different explanations of how he acquired it for everyone who asks from “damn toothpick slipped” to “damn chigger bite.”

A man of principle, Hex follows his own moral code, righting wrongs as he sees fit, relying on his wits just as much as his guns. A loner by nature, he doesn’t seek companionship, but values those friends he makes along the way, however brief their time together, trading insults with them faster than lead with his enemies.

It is his friendship with Slow Go that puts Doc Williams on Hex’s most wanted list. Despite his ineffectual gunfighting abilities, Slow Go earned Hex’s respect because of his courage in helping others regardless of how the odds were stacked against him. By contrast, Doc is a dangerous coward, literally using others for his own benefit and to do his dirty work while keeping himself out of the line of fire. Encountering more brave souls who fall victim to numerous gutless ones, Hex is driven to see justice done.

Tim Truman’s and Sam Glanzman’s artwork is palpable, bombarding the reader’s senses with such Old West atmosphere you can hear flies buzz, smell manure, and taste Hex’s cheroot smoke. Each and every character is distinct from one another, attired in a variety of period clothing and brandishing a wide array of firearms, demonstrating the artists’ commitment to authenticity, and their genuine love for the era.

And Hex’s visage has never been more horrific. Long-time readers know his face was branded with the “Mark of the Demon,” and even though it’s not mentioned in this story, the description is apt.

Rounding out the art team, color artist Sam Parsons adds striking depth to the already raw characters and gritty environment, and his use of moonlight and shadows for night scenes are especially impressive. Letterer extraordinaire Todd Klein amplifies Doc’s ramblings with clever designs that brings the insanity out of the character’s voice.

Two-Gun Mojo remains my favorite Jonah Hex story. It was also the perfect introduction to Joe R. Lansdale’s writing, and I’ve been a faithful reader of his novels, short fiction, and comic books ever since, regardless of genre, because Mr. Lansdale is his own genre and his stories never fail to entertain me.

Collected into trade paperback in 1994, Two-Gun Mojo is currently out-of-print in book form, but is now available as a motion-comic—released to drum up interest in the Jonah Hex film.

Based on the trailer, the film could use all the help it gets.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Howdy Pardner

You look like you been waitin’ a while. Travelin’ in these parts ain’t easy, so I admire a fella like yourself who don’t mind the blisterin’ sun, the bitin’ wind, and the sudden cold of such desolate landscapes as you no doubt discovered just waitin’ in this here way station.

I take it you’re here because maybe you’ve had your fill of two thousand page medieval fantasy quests, or four-color slugfests featuring ageless, tights-wearin’ caricatures, or creature features where beautiful teenagers in a small-town are bein’ gobbled up by some Dracula wanna-be, or filmed outer space spectaculars that are as empty as the environment in which they occur.

As entertainin’ as those things are capable of being, they tend to crowd around me like city folk, and when that happens I hit the trail for some breathin’ room and start searchin’ for stories that aren’t confined by popular genre conventions—stories by storytellers who are bold enough and brave enough to explore the limitless possibilities to be found in fantasy.

That’s why I come West. There’s history out here and folklore that stirs the imagination of many writers, artists, and filmmakers. That’s not to say that Western stories don’t have their shortcomings with their gunfights and bandits and gunfights and greedy railroad barons and gunfights and schoolmarms and gunfights and Indians and gunfights and saloon brawls and did I mention gunfights?

That’s why I like my West to be Weird—cowboys on clockwork horses, magic wand-slinging desperadoes, war parties comprised of the spirits of slain Indians—stories in a Western setting fused with science fiction, fantasy, and horror elements.

It’s actually a perfect era for such tales. The Old West existed during the Industrial Revolution, which boasted such scientific and technological advances in communication and transportation as the telegraph and steam engine. The large wilderness of such extreme climate conditions might as well have been the landscape of another world—populated as it was by such alien cultures as Indian tribes and their mythologies comprised of Trickster Tales, ghost dances, animal totem spirits, rituals, and medicine men.

Weird Westerns are the offspring of their 1800s forefathers—the stories that came to be commonly known as Tall Tales. Told by word-of-mouth, these bizarre and humorous adventures featured such fictional characters as Deadwood Dick, Pecos Bill, and Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox—and a folklorist could argue that their superhuman attributes and abilities qualify them as America’s first superheroes. Even the real-life personas of the time—Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid—found their exploits being exaggerated by dime novelists in far-fetched tales.

So now that you know I ain’t sellin’ you snake oil, why don’t you climb aboard the Strangecoach, and I’ll take you into the Far West where you’ll learn all about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Weird Western in prose, comic books, and film and television.

I hope you brought a pillow for your backside. This ride gets kinda bumpy…