[6 July 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When good ideas go bad, everyone looks for a specific scapegoat. In the case of a movie, there are several usual suspects - the first typically being the viability of the creative concept in the first place. When it comes to Summer blockbuster wannabe Jonah Hex and its underwhelming performance at the box office, the violators read like a who’s whom among the cast and crew - the studio, lead Josh Brolin, vapid sexual sidekick Megan Fox, underwhelming villain John Malkovich, director Jimmy Hayward. There’s even recent reports surfacing that filmmaker Francis Lawrence stepped in and handled some massive reshoots, most of which ended up destroying the original “vibe” of the story.
Oddly enough, about the only individuals to come out unscathed - at least from the standpoint of those who geek out on anything remotely related to “FIP” (films in production) - are the screenwriting team of Neveldine and Taylor. Perhaps best known for their deliciously absurd Crank franchise, the duo appear to be the beneficiaries of some massive Messageboard Nation goodwill. It also helps that little of what they created wound up on in the final version of the film. Anyone who’s seen the cobbled together mess Warners considers entertainment could probably already attest to that fact.
But those who make it their web-based business to prowl the fringes of the motion picture paradox have dug up the original Neveldine/Taylor script, and from what they have to say, we missed out on one “balls to the wall” all out action epic. In this decidedly hard-R version of the DC cult icon, Hex is a hard-assed, foul mouthed mess. He is genuinely unhinged by the death of his family, driven almost completely insane by his lust for revenge and his newfound status as “unstuck” between the living and the dead. As the duo initially conceived it, Hex is manically driven by his past, using any and all means at his disposal to inflict the kind of gory frontier justice most fanboys eat up with a spork.
This includes a moment involving zombies (and an undead version of his own daughter), splattery firefights complete with severed torsos, blow off limbs, and various and sundry blood laced carnage, and a bodice busting sexual encounter with Ms. Fox’s fallen lady. Of course, in the Neveldine/Taylor adaptation of the material, Lilah is a true Wild West whore - used, abused, contused, as familiar as an unmade bed and hardly as attractive. There is no vixen vague pearly white smile, no Maxim poster child cooing. Instead, she becomes what she should be - a fleshy support system for a hulking human shell that wants nothing more to destroy.
There are other main differences as well: No long passages of exposition substituting for slashed sequences; the villain, Turnbull, is actually given some motivation, meaning, and menace; another potential baddie, offered now in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment during an underground boxing match, would see Michael Shannon’s Doctor Cross Williams set up for the sequel (fat chance); speaking of which, the “snake man” is explained - sort of; the participation of the American Army is not some spurious afterthought, but an actual part of the plotting; the Civil War also plays a bigger part, with the eventual falling out between Turnbull and Hex explained and examined. Better yet - no magic cannonballs, no prescient President Grant, no contradictory backstory. Oddly enough, the reshoots would include the aforementioned affronts involving nuclear like artillery.
Of course, all of this assumes that Warners’ choice for director would be able to handle the Neveldine/Taylor take on the character. In the case of Mr. Hayward, it’s a question worth considering. Since we may never see what he actually intended for the material he was eventually given to work with, we have to go back to the pair who started it all - and there is no way that the man responsible for Horton Hears a Who could cop to a Crank like tour de force. Since they stepped down as directors over the by now clichéd “creative differences”, it is clear that Neveldine/Taylor’s intent was to make Jonah Hex as subversive and confrontational as their Chev Chelios classics. The suits obviously wanted Iron Man in Frontierland. What they got instead was Wild Wild West‘s more worthless cousin - and what’s funnier still is, they played a major part in turning the film into a turd when they brought Lawrence in.
So who exactly do we blame for this? Certainly, the studio will shoulder most of the responsibility. You can’t make all the decisions - both financial and creative - and not share in some of the culpability. Similarly, rising A-lister Josh Brolin bears a bit of the slop job shame. Supposedly, before the Oscar nominated star of No Country for Old Men, W., and Milk made it onto the set, he demanded (and received) substantial rewrites of the original script and a change in direction. Gone were scenes of Hex applying rockets to his horse’s testicles so he can fire the animal off like a missile. In its place - more dialogue? Or a pointless dream sequence where our hero fights his nemesis while covered in red clay? As for the rest of the cast - well, they appear to be cashing a paycheck before heading off to some other less high profile gig.
What about Neveldine and Taylor? Aren’t they a bit guilty of going overboard. It’s rare when a major Hollywood player like Warners gives in to what was clearly an over-the-top, offal spattered slice of anarchic adrenalin. After all, they got burned back in November with the vein spraying vivisection overload of Ninja Assassin, and to offer up yet another ballistic blood bath was probably not a main priority - thus, the hamfisted edit job which rendered the final 75 minute film almost incoherent. While the producers have promised an “extended, unrated” cut featuring a full quarter hour of added footage (and plentiful arterial showering), the issue becomes one of salvage. Did Warners clip the film on purpose, knowing full well that home video is where they would make some money, or did they really believe that this hacked up horse apple would sell as cinema?
As is the case with a lot of failed attempts (the original Indiana Jones/Crystal Skull script, George Romero’s long dormant “zombie war” version of Day of the Dead), we will never know what the full bore Neveldine/Taylor version of Jonah Hex would look like. Perhaps Brolin would have balked, leaving room for someone who’d take the material less seriously. Maybe they could have convinced the backers that going gonzo wasn’t a bad way to win over the jaded comic genre demo. Maybe they would have failed as miserably as Hayward and company did (after all, their track record is specious at best). Still, it’s fascinating to think that, as usual, there was a vision of Jonah Hex out there that some misguided pencil pusher rejected as being too “original” and instead decided to saddle the film with the same old heroes and villain shtick. The sad thing is we know that approach wasn’t right. Too bad Neveldine/Taylor didn’t get their full chance to fail as well.