Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnett, Michael Shannon
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 11 Jun 2010; UK theatrical: 11 Jun 2010; 2010)
When a film is confused as to its own purpose, you know you’re in for a long, hot, stinky, summer flop - and Jonah Hex is one unbelievably bad, mixed up movie. More of an outline for a good idea than a fully realized entertainment (the credits start rolling at the 73 minute mark!), it wastes the talents of Josh Brolin, a halfway decent - and somewhat zombified - Megan Fox, and a Neveldine/Taylor screenplay that hints at its Crank/Chev Chelios in the Old West origins. The responsibility for this meandering, flashback heavy mess falls squarely on the ill-prepared shoulders of first time live action feature director Jimmy Hayward. Undermined by a studio that got suckered in by his Horton Hears a Who success, the meddling and resulting piecemeal presentation argues for one of two things - a future home video release of the initial director’s cut, or utter and outright incompetence.
If you fail to pay attention to the pre- and during credits sequences, you’ll miss the vast majority of Jonah Hex’s (Brolin) origins. A solider for the South during the Civil War, he bucks the bonkers orders of his psycho superior officer Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) and ends up getting the man’s son (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) killed. The unhinged leader repays Hex by burning his wife and child alive. After branding our hero’s face so he’ll always remember the crime and leaving him for dead, the local Native Americans rescue Hex, struggle to save his soul, and leave him suspended in a weird place between life and death. Graced with the ability to talk to the corpses of the recently deceased, Hex uses this new source of information as a way of becoming a skilled bounty hunter. When Turnbull turns up with a terrorist plot to destroy America on its Centennial, it is up to Hex and his sometime hooker girlfriend Lilah (Fox) to save the day.
Who knew that the stink of Will Smith’s Wild Wild West was so pervasive? Even 11 years removed from the cinematic scene, there are still vast elements of Jonah Hex which resemble the failed Barry Sonnenfeld comedy. From the post-Civil War setting (including a mandatory reimagining of Ulysses S. Grant) to the “ultimate weapon” MacGuffin, this hodgepodge of horse opera clichés and comic book contrivances might have made a compelling film had someone realized just what they were dealing with. But instead, Hayward and company try to retrofit the material into something else completely - and just what that thing is remains indecipherable and incoherent. At any given moment, Jonah Hex is a laugher, a calculated Summer entertainment, a supernatural oater, a revenge pic, and a series of explosions just looking for some exposition to link to.
You can surely tell this movie has been passed through the editing bay one too many times. The entire rhythm is off, Hex’s heroics often undermined by a need to flashback and fill in history. When President Grant personally demands that our lead be part of the Army’ attempt to capture Turnbull, the best reason he can give is because…well, Hex and the baddie have longstanding issues. Similarly, when there is no other way to draw the otherworldly bounty hunter out, our villain resorts to kidnapping Lilah, meaning that she will be around for the last act confrontation even if she’s got little to do with the conspiracy and even less to do with Hex. The relationship between the two is bothersome, since we get the pillow talk impression that these two really do have a mutual thing. But then all throughout the rest of the film, our he does little except try to avoid her.
But it’s the lack of an intelligent motive which mars Jonah Hex over and over again. We are supposed to see Turnbull in a post-modern light, his random antebellum Tea Bagger speak insinuating a long simmering hatred for the country that countermanded the South’s desire to succeed. He is even called a terrorist at one point. But aside from the obvious beef with Hex involving his own son, the desire to watch America burn seems specious, a manufactured cause given little psychological or philosophical redress. Apparently, Turnbull takes the lyrics of “Dixie” a tad too seriously, and wants Uncle Sam to suffer from trying to salvage the Union. At least Hex’s fire is easier to understand. Sadly, the set-up is stuck at the very beginning, meaning it loses a lot of its edge once we get to the proposed payback.
Yet it’s Hayward that continues to stand out as a source of concern. Applying little of what he learned in animation to his real people and props action, the stunt sequences here are flat and lifeless, each one ending with a fireball like some manner of misguided exclamation point. Even worse, just as he is giving Brolin or Fox room to maneuver, just as he is discovering the right interpersonal beats to build on, the mangling Movieola kicks in and we are whisked away to another pointless perspective. Clearly if he were a stronger director, capable of some manner of clever or uncompromising artistic flourish, the studio wouldn’t have screwed so with his vision. But the view we end up with is so incomplete and cobbled together that Hayward comes off as Uwe Boll’s less talented brother.
It would be interesting to see what Neveldine/Taylor’s original script looked like, considering their love of all things violent, gratuitous, and viscerally exploitative - and while they never set the box office on fire personally, the Crank films deliver the kind of gutsy guilty pleasures that something like Jonah Hex avoids completely. Putting the duo behind the camera must have been a risk Warner Brothers and DC decided was too great for a simple Summer movie. What they got instead is a chop shop so perplexed, more bothered and bewildered than bewitched, that it’s bound to anger, not amuse, audiences. Maybe deep down inside its funny book foundation is a good film desperate to crawl out. Instead, Jonah Hex marks the first big bomb of what is already a rather mediocre movie season.