Monday, June 21, 2010

Zaki's Review: Jonah Hex

The real tragedy of Jonah Hex is that Josh Brolin is a good enough actor to almost make you forget what a lousy movie it is.  Almost.  This is a film so slapdash, so incompetently assembled that, at a scant (though hardly breezy) 80 minutes, you start wondering what exactly was cut out if this is what they left in. Before it's even finished, with the character riding off for further cinematic adventures that will remain forever unseen, you're performing a mental autopsy to try and pinpoint the cause of death.  Was it gross negligence, rampant neglect, or some combination thereof?

Set in a Tinseltown version of the old west exclusive to movies like this, Hex stars Brolin as a former confederate soldier (but don't worry, he deserted, so it's okay to like him) marked with distinctive -- and disgusting -- facial scarring after his wife and son are murdered and he's left for dead by his former commander, one Quentin Turnbull (a bored-looking John Malkovich, already picturing the addition this movie will put on his house). When Turnbull, still smarting from how that whole Civil War thing shook out, gets ahold of a deadly new weapon with which to terrorize the populace, Hex, now a bounty hunter by trade, is called to his country's aid by President Grant (who I'm pretty sure is played by Aidan Quinn, but whose presence as a character invites unfortunate parallels with the equally-unfortunate Wild Wild West).

Whether the blame lies with director Jimmy Hayward, making his live action debut after a career in animation, credited writers Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor, or writer/producer Akiva Goldsman, whose role in crafting the latter two '90s Batman flicks was (if you'll permit me to mix my comic book metaphors) Kryptonite for that franchise, the result is the same.  The wildly dissonant tone caroms so haphazardly between self-satire and self-seriousness (sometimes within the same scene!) that it's impossible to form anything resembling an attachment to the characters or situations, culminating in a final act showdown that manages the hat trick of being loud, dumb, and uninteresting.  Bravo.

Jonah Hex's origins can be traced to the DC Comics library, where he made his debut in the early '70s, and remains the only Western-era comic character still being regularly published today.  Now, I'm the first to admit that I'm slightly less familiar with Hex's comic book exploits than I am with, say, Green Lantern, having only seen a few of his appearances here and there (including a terrific 1995 episode of Batman: The Animated Series), so I found myself doing what I tell my students never to do: hitting up Wikipedia to help fill in some of the backstory for me.

A lone gun antihero clearly in the vein of Eastwood's "Man With No Name" (whose streak of darkly-comic exploits actually ends, in a twist straight out of Serling, with the character stuffed and mounted in a museum!), Hex's appeal springs largely from the fact that he's the rare non-powered hero in a sea of primary-colored tights.  While his world occasionally intersected with the fantastical and the supernatural, Hex himself remained firmly grounded in reality.  So naturally, when it came time to give him the big screen treatment, they tacked on some mystic hoo-doo about being able to converse with (and briefly revive) the dead.  Because, y'know, it's a comic book.  Whaddya expect?

By itself, this wouldn't be (and isn't, really) a dealbreaker.  Instead, it's the project's unfailing inability to be true to its own premise without sacrificing verisimilitude at the altar of crass commercialism.  That's how you end up with stuff like Hex's horse being armed with ridiculous twin Gatling guns at its sides, even though they'd probably kill the horse about eighteen times when fired.  That's how you get Megan Fox, doing a variation on her usual vacant, dead-eyed thing, as the prostitute love interest (because, naturally, prostitutes in the 1880s looked like Megan Fox).  There are frustrating hints at every step of the steampunk spaghetti western this was probably pitched as, but which got processed on its way to the theater into just another disposable piece of summer flotsam.

And then there's poor Josh Brolin, whose presence at the center of this monstrosity provides its only glimmer of a hearbeat.  The Oscar nominee surely earns his star stripes here, doing everything that's asked of him and more.  Much like Hugh Jackman in last year's better-by-comparison X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Brolin effectively embodies the role, and lends it a credibility that's far above and beyond anything that's on the page.  This was clearly a labor of love for the actor, and like Victor Garber's "I'm sorry I didn't build you a stronger ship" to Kate Winslet in Titanic, I kept wishing they would've built Brolin the film that his performance deserved.

It tells you something about how stunningly tone deaf development execs are when the sole lesson they come away with after the film's abysmal commercial and critical failure is that, "You don't take a handsome actor and disfigure him," while failing to address the larger problems of incomprehensible plot or lackluster direction.  Sadly, as Warners' latest attempt to spin franchise gold from its DC Comics treasure trove, Jonah Hex falls flat on its horribly-scarred face, joining other cinematic also-rans from the publisher like Constantine and last April's The Losers.  With a death as ignominious as this, I'm not sure he wouldn't have preferred being stuffed and mounted instead. D


Anonymous said...

Thanks for saving me the trouble of even renting this one. From the promos I saw, I couldn't figure out what would make this guy appealing, seems like the answer is nothing. - Farhan

Andrew Wood said...

I'm not sure which phrase in this juicily written evisceration is my favorite, Zaki. But, for insightful detail, I dig the description, "steampunk spaghetti western." I've heard of both terms, of course, but seeing them together is a revelation and - in context of this lamentable flick - a disappointment. Oh, how cool Jonah could have been!

And the title of this blog piece: Perfect!

Zaki said...

Thanks, Andy! One thing I'll say in favor of bad movies is that they never fail to set my creative juices a-flowin'!

dave said...

Ugh, you know, we used the name Jonah Hex for a character in our If Spaghetti Western Concept Rap album, called "Showdown at the BK Corral." (It's basically an epic Spaghetti Western over 9 tracks - very influenced by Leone and Morricone), and when we started, it was just this obscure comic book character that we were using as an homage. I really hope we didn't shoot ourselves in the foot, now that there's this piece of crap. I'd love to hear what you think of the album. You can download it for free at

JKNeilson said...

It's a pity it wasn't better. Had potential. The deleted scenes revealed a few useful details that would have at least made it stick together better, and - I can't remember for sure, but I think an entire character vanished at one point.

Great review though, but like Cowboys and Aliens I had to see it for myself, and really wish I hadn't bothered!