Review: Jonah Hex

“I don’t know what to say to you.”

Jonah Hex is a puzzle.  Adapting the character’s name and facial scar (and little else) from a western-themed comic book series, the film makes simultaneous cases for the re-thinking of comic book and videogame adaptations (it’s so sloppily put together that it will likely do more damage to beloved geekery than Super Mario Bros. and Batman and Robin combined), as well as against the rushed closure of Hollywood productions in crisis.

The problems may stem from filmmakers Neveldine & Taylor backing out of the director’s job (though their name is still on the script…and it remains to be seen just how much of that script is in the film that was released today). The directorial team-up had huge success with the Crank films, though their follow-up Gamer was a bland failure.  (Word of a supposed Ghost Rider sequel is exciting news if you consider that character being channeled through the Crank filter.)  But their fingerprints are all over Jonah Hex, whether they take the blame or not.  Moments of frantic violence (their specialty) are found throughout the new film, though their sense of madness and irony are lost on the western gig, which is a strict vengeance shakedown.   But let’s suppose that N&T got away clean.  How did the resulting film become so particularly undone?

From the choppy goings-on, the numerous recognizable actors who appear for mere moments (the inimitable Michael Shannon was on screen for roughly three seconds), the use of repeated flashbacks and dream sequences that would be labelled padding if it weren’t for the fact that the film barely achieves feature length (including credits, it’s 80 minutes long), and the raw, sloppy, amateurish look and effects of almost every scene, Jonah Hex stands out as one of the most poorly made Summer blockbusters in recent memory. Even “bad” films like Transformers have polish and coherency.  It seems odd that the studio would put out a film more ham-fisted and frustrating than a direct-to-DVD embarrassment.

Yet you want to like the film.  Westerns are hard to come by and get a bad rap because of poorly made ones like this;  so many likeable actors promise appeal that never gels;  Summertime explosions are always welcome, but Jonah Hex bathes every scene in a rumbling, roaring heavy-metal score that dulls the senses.  Josh Brolin tries gamely to put over the grim revenger, but his scar makeup gets in the way of us being able to understand his dialogue half the time.

Murga murga murga lawmen murga.”   (That’s what I heard.)

And while he was recently masterful in Disgrace, John  Malkovich chews on a Southern accent like it was marmalade.

Megan Fox, as a sweaty but remarkably unscathed prostitute (I say that considering everyone else is gaunt, grizzled, scarred, oozing and unshaven…including some female characters), seems to be given a soft focus around her face in every other scene.  Not as bad as the Milla Jovovich CG gleam in Ultraviolet, but close.  She has little to do other than allure the right men and repel the wrong ones.

The fine German actor Michael Fassbender plays Malkovich’s number one heavy, an Irish madman with a sharp knife and a gift for song.  His is the sole character outside of Brolin’s that is somewhat interesting, though his role in the story is to brutalize, and little else.

Jonah Hex is a Civil War vet who turns on his more savage cohorts, led by Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich).  Turnbull retaliates by killing Hex’s family and scarring his face with a branding iron.  But Hex survives (and in the process receives the all-too-convenient and poorly explained ability to speak to dead people, much the way Lee Pace did in Pushing Daisies, though it is fair to say there are fewer pies in Jonah Hex) and becomes a bounty hunter.  The government, learning of Turnbull’s latest schemes, brings Hex on in exchange for a full pardon, but Hex doesn’t need such enticements to take on his nemesis.  Turnbull’s plan? To destroy Washington D.C. during the centennial celebration using a “nation-destroyer”, a new, super-secret weapon system that combines several large, steaming cannonballs and an orange, glowing sphere that ignites them…the resulting effect comparable to a small atomic blast.

But underneath all this, there is a shadow world where Hex and Turnbull fight…symbolizing absolutely nothing, because in the real world, Hex and Turnbull are…fighting.

Jonah Hex is a further sign that this Summer’s crop of action blockbusters are wildly misguided.  The film is so bad that Hex deserves another chance, frankly.  Perhaps, like the Hulk, someone will make a different version one day that forgoes the bombast and clutter, and aims for an Unforgiven-style human drama instead.

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