'Jonah Hex': Dirt Likes Dead

Slight but sluggish, murky but not effectively dark, Jonah Hex is caught in a limbo rather like its hero's.

Jonah Hex

Director: Jimmy Hayward
Cast: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnett
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-06-18 (General release)

"This is the future, Hex," posits Lieutenant Grass (Will Arnett), "Intelligence, information." He points to an underling perched on a telegraph pole, jerry-rigging some electrical connections until sparks fly and he flops to the ground, convulsing from the shock. Well, the "lawless bounty hunter" Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) is not so impressed by this glimpse at the future. He's more concerned with the past and his means of communication is more direct. He talks to corpses, he reveals, a skill he acquired when he was dead himself and then, as he likes to say, brung back.

As it happens in this utter jumble of a plot, their conversation takes place nearby exactly the sort of man Jonah likes to interrogate, that is, a dead one. Grass admits upfront that his men's previous interrogation brought on the death, one of several signs littered throughout the film that this post-Civil War U.S military tortures prisoners. Before you can say "Abu Ghraib," Grass assures Jonah that his methods are sound, no matter this particular not so useful outcome.

As Jonah's a former Confederate soldier himself ("War and me took to each other real well "), he's disinclined to commend anything his erstwhile enemies did. (But before you start worrying that he favored slavery, the film includes a scene where his best black friend, Smith [Lance Reddick], provides some exposition as to Jonah's essential moral goodness, despite appearances.) And so he sneers at their incompetence before he heads on over to practice his own brand of data gathering: he lays his hand on the rotting cadaver, which burbles to talking-life for a minute: "What's happening to me?" Jonah squints. "'Fraid you're dead friend." A few threats and gurgles later, and the corpse mumbles something Jonah considers actionable -- or at least something that gets him back on his horse in a hurry, galloping away from this ridiculous scene.

If only, you're wishing... he just keeps on riding out of the movie.

But no, Jonah will land himself in another location, engaged in still more nonsense. After all, he has some issues to work out, including his that whole once-dead thing (which also involved watching his wife and son die first) and an on-again, off-again relationship with the U.S government, now headed by President Grant (Aidan Quinn). For the moment, Grant has him hunting down an especially heinous villain, Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), the very villain, in fact, who killed Jonah's family and left him for dead -- and oh yes, scarred his face so he would forever have a mark to remind him of who done this to him.

This bit of history explains -- again and again, in repeated flashbacks to Turnbull's horrific attack and sneery narration ("Know what it feels like to lose everything? This is what it feels like!") -- just why Jonah has agreed to work for the government he considers illegitimate. While he has a vengeance plot in his head (being a Western-gothic-comic-book hero and all), Grant has another concern. Seems that Turnbull is not only unconscionably cruel on a face-to-face basis, but he's also a terrorist, cobbling together the pieces of the "ultimate weapon," a bomb-like contraption that features glowing orbs, in order to blow up Washington DC on the very day it's celebrating the centennial. "On the Fourth of July," snarls Turnbull, "the United states of America will know hell."

In an effort to uncover the details of this dastardly plot before it occurs, Jonah runs around seemingly haphazardly. He gets a dog. He talks to dead people (like his best buddy Jeb [Jeffrey Dean Morgan], dead because Jonah shot him for a reportedly righteous reason -- something about saving people in a church -- but still, annoying the heck out of Jeb's dad, Turnbull). And he picks fights with Turnbull's men, sometimes able to dodge bullets like Neo, and other times shot through and through, so he can re-do his encounter with chanting-and-smoking medicine men (the reason for either case remains unclear).

All this boys business needs to be contextualized, of course -- you don't want to be imagining that Jonah's affection for moldy male corpses is anything other than a job. And so he visits with Lilah (Megan Fox, whose startling corset distracts you for about three seconds from her regrettable performance). A hooker with designs on a settled-down life with Jonah, she counts and kisses his bullet holes and when needed, fires her own guns with crisp expertise.

If Lilah's Betty-Boopish routine is unoriginal and cartoony, it is also consistent with the rest of the film. Which is to say that director Jimmy Hayward (responsible as well for Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!) assembles a crowd of short scenes and instantly forgettable characters, occasionally under sporadic shreddy guitar courtesy of the metal band Mastodon. The sagas of Jonah Hex's mish-mashed soundtrack, like the stories of its reshoots and delays, only matter now as they once looked forward to the future that is, quite feebly, now.

It's hard to see how intelligence, of any sort, has anything to do with it. Slight but sluggish, murky but not effectively dark, Jonah Hex is caught in a limbo rather like its hero's. There's no good end in sight.


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