Revisiting the Reviled – ‘Jonah Hex’ is Cursed by the Spirit of Mediocrity

GameStop, Inc.
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Learning how to make smoke rings takes a lot of practice.

Before we get to the mess that is Jonah Hex, let me get something out of the way. When a film is asking me to openly root for someone who served in the Confederate Army or were on the Confederate side of the Civil War, they’re already asking too much. It’s a major reason I hate Gone with the Wind – Oh, all your hardships would just disappear if you could own people. At least a film like The Searchers presents the former Confederate as a gruff, unlikable man that is willing to kill a young woman who was kidnapped as a child. Though John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is the star of the film, the moral compass is provided by Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin Pawley. That being said, Jonah Hex’s similarities to John Ford’s classic western begin and end with an ex-Confederate lead. And in fairness to Jonah Hex, the film does attempt to distance its character from the horrors of the Confederacy, but foolishly leave Hex wearing the grey uniform that represents the Stars and Bars. I know that’s how he looks in the comics, but, as we all know, it is possible to change elements when adapting comic books for the screen.

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“I look forward to day when I can phone it in, John.”

While fighting for the Confederacy, Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) suddenly grows a conscience and betrays the Confederate general Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich). An evil man, Turnbull seeks vengeance on Hex by slaughtering his wife and child, and scarring his face with a red hot iron. Believing that Turnbull was killed, Hex has become a ruthless bounty hunter in the years since the end of the Civil War. Hex sometimes seeks solace with Lilah (Megan Fox), a prostitute with a heart of gold that can see Hex’s tenderness beneath his scarred face. But reports of Turnbull’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. With the help of his Irish henchman, Burke (Michael Fassbender), Turnbull has stolen a secret weapon designed by Eli Whitney capable of destroying entire cities with one shot. Following the orders of President Grant (Aiden Quinn), Lieutenant Grass (Will Arnett) must secure the services of Jonah Hex to stop Turnbull and save the United States from the reinvigorated Confederate forces.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the first cut of this film screened. With a final running time of an hour and fifteen minutes, Jonah Hex went through massive edits in post-production. While the edits, obviously, made the film shorter, one might wonder, however unlikely, if coherence was sacrificed in its place. With his only prior experience directing coming from the animated film Horton Hears a Who!, director Jimmy Hayward seems in over his head. The script by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, creators of the Crank films and originally slated to direct, does him no favors. Despite moments of simple visual competence, Hayward never finds that perfect mix of western tropes and manic comic fun.

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“I’m so tired of being put in skimpy costumes and compromising positions by horny directors.”

Compounding matters, the excellent ensemble cast is completely wasted. Josh Brolin is unintelligible behind his facial prosthetics. Malkvoich phones it in for a paycheck. Megan Fox acts and looks as if she’s been transported into a Transformers movie set in the 19th Century, complete with skimpy outfits, bland acting, and orange skin covered in glycerin sweat. Before he was one of Hollywood’s most sought after actors, Michael Fassbender plays Burke like any generic psychotic henchman. Will Arnett is never given a chance to show off his comedic chops. Both Aiden Quinn and Michael Shannon are in the film so briefly that if you blink you’ll miss them. The only character with any kind of likability is the dog that follows Hex around.

Probably the kindest thing you could say about Jonah Hex is that it provided the studio that financed it a generous tax write off. Grossing under $11 million worldwide, Jonah Hex lends itself to the notion that westerns are cursed at the box office – The Lone Ranger and Cowboys & Aliens being the other recent examples. But that is incorrect. There is a place for the western at the cinemas – True Grit and Django Unchained are recent successes – but people don’t have time or patience for excruciating westerns that are tied into larger fantasy/sci-fi genres. It becomes a tightrope act that requires the filmmakers to establish setting and characters as well as laying out the rules for the fantastical elements. Requiring a deft hand, there are very few filmmakers who could pull of such a feat, and I’m strained to think of anyone capable off the top of my head.

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The real star of the film.

Jonah Hex is the worst kind of bad movie: a complete bore. It’s not weird enough to be interesting, not dumb enough to be endearing. It’s a soulless slog with no heart or soul. The massive editing was an act of mercy upon its limited audience. If the film ran any longer the possibility of riots would be real. Jimmy Hayward returned to directing animation, last year directing Free Birds. After the dismal Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the team of Neveldine and Taylor went their separate ways. Josh Brolin has jumped ship from DC over to Marvel, playing Thanos is Guardians of the Galaxy and other future Marvel films. Rumor has it when Thanos obtains the Infinity Gauntlet he’ll actively seek out and destroy every remaining copy of Jonah Hex before attempting to annihilate Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Maybe not. But I can dream, can’t I?

 

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