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. :-)

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