Jonah Hex has always been one of the more entertaining characters in the DC Comics stable. Now I won’t claim I’m the most knowledgeable individual on the subject of Jonah Hex. Most of my exposure to the character comes from his appearance on Bruce Timm’s Batman cartoon, along with the limited series Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such, but the scarred gunman and his battles with foes both mundane and supernatural were wildly different than the usual super heroics that count as DC’s bread and butter. This distinctive style of comic book storytelling and genre bending endeared the character to me long ago. Also, Hex’s adventures (among earlier stories) served as inspiration for later tales that would eventually come be known as the genre of Weird West fiction, one that I am very much a fan of. I was initially excited when I heard that a Jonah Hex film was in the making, but the old fears whispered in the back of my mind soon enough. This was a comic book adaptation, after all, and not of a household name character. When filmmakers know the audience isn’t terribly familiar with a character, they usually take it as an invitation to screw with the source material in any way they see fit (sometimes, seemingly, just for the hell of it). You may ask if that is what’s happened with Jonah Hex. The short answer is YES. A slightly longer answer is THEY FUCKING BUTCHERED IT.
The plot is a nightmare, thanks in no small part to the piss-poor editing job. Rumors abound that a significant portion of the film was left on the editing room floor in attempt to make the film more action-oriented. This serves to make the film less exciting than disorienting and incomprehensible. Knowledge of the comics isn’t necessary to grasp the plot (if any grasping is to be had), since they throw most of the established mythology out the window and swap it for a Weird West version of The Crow. As it stands, we get Jonah Hex, a disgraced Civil War vet who turned on his commanding officer, Quentin Turnbull, and killed Turnbull’s son (also Hex’s best friend), following of an attack of conscience. Later, after Hex has settled into a quiet family life with his wife and child, Turnbull comes a’ calling, seeking revenge. He kills said wife and kid and scars Hex’s face as payback. This leaves Hex stuck between the land of the living and the dead (don’t ask me how or why, it involves Indians, for some reason), and sees him take up the life of a bounty hunter. Years later, the Army turns up, informing him Turbull is back to his old Union-hating tricks, trying to destabilize the country and incite a new civil war. President Grant himself requests Hex’s assistance in taking down Turnbull and stopping his bat-shit insane plan, which involves causing the breakdown of the Union by attacking the centennial celebration with a super weapon (built by Eli Whittney, no less) that, as far as I can tell, is a gigantic six shooter that seems to be powered by Dragon Balls. I dare you to make more sense of this plot than that. Go ahead, try. I’ll wait. Couldn’t? Didn’t think so.
Even at its scant running time (85 min), there still seem to be a handful of scenes and some asinine post-9/11 subtext that could have been dropped. I could have done without the bare knuckle boxing excursion, which adds nothing to the plot and subjects us to a fight between an old west strongman and what appears to be Reptile from Mortal Kombat. Just following that scene, Hex picks up a dog sidekick that does, well, absolutely nothing for the rest of the film. Moving along, the film throws us some War on Terror bullshit, with Turnbull cast as a terrorist (they even give him the nickname “Terrorista”, in case there was any confusion on the subject) and his weapon depicted as a WMD. I wonder if, in the post-Jack Bauer world, Hollywood fears that audiences won’t be able to tell who the bad guy is unless he’s clearly identified as a terrorist. Though the conservative subtext is certainly a hoot, the last scene is surely the most laughable part of the film, with Grant offering Hex the position of Sheriff of the United States. Yup, sheriff of the whole freaking country. Brilliant!
And when we ask who the blame should be laid upon, let us turn our attention to director Jimmy Hayward. Who decided to hand directorial duties over to the guy who made Horton Hears a Who!? Did the producers decide that, after taking a cinematic dump on Dr. Seuss’s grave, his next gig should be desecrating a classic (albeit obscure) DC Comics hero? What qualifies a guy whose previous duties entailed animating ReBoot (among other, lesser children’s cartoons) to direct a big budget adaptation of a mature and violent IP that easily seems outside his ability? I’m not saying an artist can’t change direction. I just would’ve liked to have seen something on the guy’s resume that would suggest the growth necessary to jump from kiddie fare to a gritty western.
And given Hayward’s background in animation, one would think the animated opening wouldn’t have been so embarrassingly bad (pretty much on the level of those crude “motion comics” the comic book industry has been trying to cram down the consumers’ collective throat this past year). His style is serviceable, if mediocre, until action of any kind takes place on screen, at which point things promptly go to shit. The man doesn’t know what to do with the camera once the bullets start flying, and often shies away from showing any real graphic violence when it is clearly implied (no doubt an attempt to secure the PG-13 rating that tends to leave no viewer truly satisfied). It gets worse still when the action is computer-assisted. Again, a guy whose last job involved computer animation should be embarrassed for throwing CGI this laughable up on the screen. Now anyone who knows me knows I have no love for digital effects, but these are so bad that, if you squint during any of the film‘s many explosions, you can actually see the pixels. Except you don’t have to squint.
The acting runs the gamut from memorable to appalling. First we have Josh Brolin as the titular Hex. I’ve never seen anything that’s proved to me that Josh Brolin is anything other than an average actor, and Jonah Hex does nothing to change my opinion. In his hands, Jonah Hex becomes little more than a second-rate riff on Clint Eastwood’s character in the Dollars trilogy. That is, if Eastwood’s character dropped brain cell-murdering one liners every five minutes and had reduced the rest of his performance to sneering (granted, Eastwood isn‘t opposed to sneering, but he doesn‘t try and hang a whole performance on the activity). Next up on the chopping block is Megan Fox, about whom I would like to pose a question: Am I the only straight man in America that does not wanna throw it in this woman? That’s got nothing to do with her acting in this picture, I’m just genuinely curious. As for as her performance as the least syphilis-ridden whore the Wild West ever saw, meh. I’m of almost total indifference to her presence here. She’s certainly given more to do here than in the Transformers movies (which only demand that she run around helplessly and look fuckable), but she fails to convince as an action heroine. It’s not a bad performance (excepting her god awful period accent), but if Miss Fox wants to be taken seriously as an actress, as she’s so fond of saying in interviews, she had best find something to star in that’s worth taking seriously.
As the villain of the piece, we are treated (or subjected) to John Malkovich. I’m only gonna say one thing: Shame. No need to explain it any further. He fucking knows what he did. On the other side of the spectrum, we have Michael Fassbender. Fassbender, last seen as Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds, shows up in a memorable turn as Irish madman Burke. It’s a shame his performance is trapped in this sub-par of a film, as his Alex DeLarge-esque psycho (bowler hat and all), though criminally underused, easily steals the show. Its a performance so entertaining, it almost deserves its own film. It’s not good acting as a high art, mind you. It’s good acting in that fun, popcorn Danny Trejo kind of way. The only thing that distracts (not detracts, mind you) are his anachronistic tribal tattoos that seem far too modern for an old West outlaw.
All in all, Jonah Hex fails both as an adaption and as a film judged on its own merits. Sure we’ve got scarred-up bounty hunter Hex and his arch nemesis Turnbull, but little else to link it to its source material. Grafting on supernatural elements to Hex’s origin and the smattering of steampunk tech seen here make the film come off more like a loose adaptation of Deadlands than anything else (that reference just earned me massive geek cred, along with a sinking feeling of a youth wasted on RPGs. Now where did I put my whiskey?). Outside of faithfulness to canon, it’s a loud, stupid action film of the worst variety (and believe me, there are good loud dumb action movies, this just isn‘t one of them) with no style or substance. One good bit of character acting isn’t going to outweigh the rest of the cast turning in performances ranging from dull to unforgivable, and all the bad explosions in the world won’t distract from a plot this boneheaded. It seems that, unless a comic book is a well known title of the Batman and X-Men variety, it’s bound to be treated with little to no respect when the time comes for the big screen treatment. Important parts of the mythology and the character are thrown out in favor of what filmmaker (almost always one with no beforehand knowledge of the franchise) thinks will play better on the screen. So I guess things aren’t looking to good for that upcoming Deadpool movie. Sucks to be you, Wade.
– Adam Rosina