Let’s be up front about this – the comic book adaptation Jonah Hex is not a good film. All the reviews, publicity and anti-hype was totally accurate. It’s plodding, generic, and predicable. But then again, that’s not always a bad thing. A car crash of a movie can still be compelling if it’s really bad. It can be unintentionally funny (check out Hollow Point some time). It can be so bad, it’s good. But, in order to be any of the those, it absolutely cannot afford to be dull (as seen already this year with the execrable Season of the Witch). Sadly, Jonah Hex commits this cardinal sin of popcorn entertainment – it is deathly dull and manages to drag terribly, despite its incredibly short sub-90 minutes running time.
We’re introduced to the eponymous hero in flashback, as a solider in the American civil war. Fighting in the grey garb of the Confederate army, Hex demonstrates an aptitude for warfare. However, the gravelly voice over informs us, he fell out with his commanding officer – a sadistic general called Quentin Turnbull, when the aforementioned General demands he kill some civilians. Mr Turnbull did not take kindly to Jonah’s desertion, and so hunts him down, murders his wife and children and disfigures Hex by burning him with a cattle iron before leaving him for dead. The flashback informs us (through a series of cartoons, of all things) that Hex attempted to hunt down Turnbull, but his nemesis neatly skirts his comeuppance by dying in a hotel fire before his righteous revenge can be served. So, somewhat devoid of purpose, Hex takes up life as a bounty hunter, drifting from town to town, occasionally swinging back round to visit a friendly prostitute who seems to be the only human who is willing to speak to Hex and, for reasons unknown, hopes to one day run away with him (one can see the attraction). It’s during one of these conjugal visits that the US government finds him and presents Hex with a message from President Grant: Turnbull is in fact alive and well and building a super weapon which he intends to use during the nation’s centenary celebrations to break up the fledgling union and revive the South. Hex is charged with finding his ex-commander and has only a matter of days in which to do so.
All of this should sound familiar as, minus the tragic back story, the film shares a number of plot elements with the firmly middle-rate Will Smith vehicle Wild Wild West. An ex-confederate general trying to get revenge on the young nation by using a super weapon, whilst a cowboy, summoned by the president, tries to stop him, with the help of an unbelievably beautiful prostitute/Salma Hayek. But where Wild Wild West had the use of Steam Punk technology to set it apart from a standard western, Jonah Hex instead introduces a supernatural element. A single, very specific supernatural element: you see, Hex can speak to the dead – when he touches a dead person, they come to back to (un)life until Hex lets them go, so that Hex can interrogate them and make use of the dead’s ability to see all (they can do this? OK whatever). Why does he possess this power, I hear you ask? Erm… because. Why can’t anyone else do this? Erm.. again, very good question. Why hasn’t Jonah parleyed this skill into a stage show and made his millions? Man, you’re on fire today! Anyway, enough with the awkward questions. Hex has this power and we’re just going to have to accept it, especially since Hex isn’t going to explain it and the native americans sure aren’t talking. Sorry, did I forget to mention that Hex had been rescued by native americans, nursed back to health and given these mystical gifts? I’m sure you guessed already. I mean, seriously, how many cowboys were actually rescued by native americans in real life? The number of times it seems to happen in Hollywood films, they come across as some kind of precursor to the Red Cross (no racially-insensitive pun intended) To drive home the point, Jonah has another near death experience mid way through the film and who comes rushing to the rescue yet again? You guessed it. Hex must have had some top notch health insurance to get service like this!
The reductive premise provides a backdrop to a humdrum, uninspired tale. Hex takes all of 5 minutes to locate Turnbull, thanks to that speaking to the dead thingy. He has a fight, loses, gets patched up, then has another fight, and that’s just about your lot. The whole film is repetitive and shockingly dull. Action sequences are all shot largely in the dark, likely to hide budget issues and consist of Hex walking around, shooting people until he gets shot. There is one inventive weapon introduced – self-loading crossbows that fire dynamite. A genius piece of design that could have been Hex’s signature weapon but in fact are squandered in a single scene and never used again. There’s no supernatural weapons or skills introduced that would at least make the character or the action interesting. Couldn’t Turnbull have turned to the supernatural in order to combat Hex’s powers? Nope, apparently he couldn’t. One sub-villain get’s killed by Hex then brought back to un-life so Hex can “kill” him again, but its done so quickly and blandly that it has no impact whatsoever.
In a rare leading role, Josh Brolin growls for all he’s worth, but his character is such an empty shell that there’s really nothing to work with. He’s passable as the strong silent type but nothing more. His nemesis Turnbull is played by one of Hollywood’s favourite uber-hams: John Malkovich. Sporting a wonderfully bizarre hairpiece, Malkovich looks set for a classic panto villain role, but even he disappoints. Played largely flat, the character is uninteresting and uninspired – it appears that Malkovich was more than happy to bank the check and sleep walk through the part. Chief Panto theatrics are handed off to his right hand man, played with much more relish by Michael Fassbender. His character Burke is a stock psychopath, following Turnbull simply for the chance to kill as many people as possible, but Fassbender at least manages to give him some sharp edges. He’s about the only actor to come out of the film with any merit – despite the horrendous “blarney Oyrish” accent he adopts throughout. One of the few selling points (at least in the film’s marketing) was Megan Fox wearing a corset. And to be fair to the girl, she does look good in a corset – so job done on that score. Of course, not once does anyone question how she manages to look that stunning whilst working as a prostitute in the Wild West. It’s a bigger mystery than Hex’s “dead whisper” act but then that’s just a given in this sort of movie. It seems to me that Hollywood has progressed far enough to accept that not every leading man has to be an Adonis (witness Brolin’s makeup job, for example) but any significant female characters must still be a supermodel. To Fox’s credit, she appears to at least understand her role, as she doesn’t even bother trying to act.
The script is credited to Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, writers of the wonderfully anarchic Crank films. Precisely what happened between the script’s creation and the film’s final production must have been dramatic, as it’s hard to believe two such hyperactive writers would create some thing so dull and bland. There were rumours of director rewrites around production and the finished film certainly reeks of compromise or cost cutting, not least in the alarm-raising 81 minute running time. Perhaps a masterpiece of a director’s cut is hiding away in some vault, waiting to be discovered by future generations, but somehow I doubt it: until then, Jonah Hex is just another dull film clogging up the crappy end of the comicbook adaptation genre.
If they’d cast Jonah Hill in the lead role, it would have been a very different film