JONAH HEX may not turn out to be the worst blockbuster that Hollywood inflicts upon us this summer, but it certainly seems likely to be the most disappointing. Not disappointing because it was filled with potential, but disappointing because it fails to deliver even the cheap thrills, over-hyped action heroics, and pre-fabricated melodrama that – at a bare minimum – passes for entertainment in this kind of film. This is one, dull ride across the range that will have viewers running home in search of HIGH-PLAINS DRIFTER, THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, and even THE CROW – just as a reminder that there is a way to do this kind of genre piece right.
The film starts with a clever opening cue – the Warner Brothers theme played on electric slide guitar, lending a Western feel to the familiar notes – but with a modern edge. This echo of Ennio Morricone (who scored Sergio Leone’s great Italian Westerns) is the first and last time we will feel any sense of anticipation in JONAH HEX, because anticipation requires a narrative confidence that this film utterly lacks. The pacing is weirdly schizophrenic – a fact that becomes evident in the opening prologue.
The first problem is that the prologue should not even exist. Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) should be introduced as a man of mystery, but the film seems afraid of letting us figure out his back story along the way, so instead it is spelled out in an opening montage, with helpful voice over from the character.
Unfortunately, the sequence is oddly truncated, as if the filmmakers were even more afraid that we might be bummed out if Hex’s personal tragedy were actually allowed to register on an emotional level. So what we get is the telegraph version: Hex family killed stop Hex face branded stop Hex recovers from near death stop Hex now able to communicate with dead stop Hex becomes bounty hunter full stop. Consequently, the scene leaves us cold, and later flashbacks, filling in the missing details, comes a bit late to hit us with emotional impact – it’s a re-run of what we already know, and it’s too late to make us care.
If this opening miscalculation were just a matter of the film getting off to a shaky start, we could try to forget it and move on, but the sequence turns out to be symptomatic of the rest of JONAH HEX, which feels like an all-out assault on narrative coherency. It’s as if Nicolas Roeg got stuck with a boring work-for-hire assignment and decided to sabotage the production with his patented fee-association montage approach.
Or more likely, the film feels eerily reminiscent of THE INVASION (2007), the adaptation of Jack Finny’s The Body Snatchers that the Warner Brothers studio turned over to the Wachowski Brothers in post-production. JONA HEX features the same sort of editorial trickery, with different scenes intercut in a way that confuses the timeline in the hope of compressing exposition and visuals into one big – though not very finely threaded – knot.
TWO FILMS IN ONE
JONAH HEX is supposed to be two films in one: it’s a Western about a bounty hunter out for revenge, and it’s a horror- fantasy about a man who stopped just short of death’s door and now has some kind of connection with those on the other side, manifested in the ability to briefly resurrect the dead for interrogation purposes. But more than that JONAH HEX feels like a movie that was shot twice, and the editors could not decide which pieces to use, so they intercut both of them. JONAH HEX Take One was apparently about a loner cowboy whose only companions were a horse and a dog, and it ended with Hex and his enemy Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) duking it out in the desert. JONAH HEX Take Two gives Hex a sometimes girlfriend, a hooker with a heart of gold named Lilah (Megan Fox) and ends with Hex and Turbull duking it out aboard an iron-clad vessel.
The two fight-to-the-death scenes with Hex and Turnbull are intercut, the justification (provided in voice over) being that the desert sequence is a near-death hallucination, to which Jonah is flashing back. As if that two-fer were not enough, there is also a double ending: in one, Jonah and Lilah walk away together, into a beautifully rendered cloudy blue sky; in the other, Jonah rides off into the desert, with his horse and dog, but without Lilah.
It is weirdly symptomatic of JONAH HEX’s mangled macho ethos that the scene with the dog – in fact Jonah’s relationship with the animal – is far more moving than the one with Lilah. In fact, the dog’s has a few good moments that leave us wanting more. The canine is introduced as if it will feature prominently: Hex evens the odds with some idiots who are tormenting the creature, which shows its gratitude by following him of its own accord. And then…nothing. The poor pup’s apparently abbreviated role suggests one of those old time co-stars whose best scenes were cut out to salvage the vanity of the headliner afraid of being upstaged.
Whether JONAH HEX was in fact largely reshot and recut, I cannot say, but I certainly hope it was – because I would hate to think that the film was designed from the ground up to be this way. For all the talk of CLASH OF THE TITANS being radically revised at the last minute, the seams that show are relatively forgivable. In JONAH HEX, however, the film feels stitched together like a bad mad scientist’s experiment.
For one thing, Fox’s character looks shoe-horned into the film at random intervals. At one point she kills a paying customer; the next time we see her, it’s as if the incident never happened. (Sure, we know the creep deserved it, but are we really supposed to believe the local sheriff, not to mention the guys’ family, would just give her a pass?) She’s a kick-ass girl except when the script needs her to be easily abducted by Burke (Michael Fassbender) so that Turnbull can use her as bait to lure Jonah Hex into a trap.
Weirdly, Turnbull doesn’t follow up on this plan; instead, Hex shows up of his own accord, leading to an unintentionally hilarious bit. Turnbull, who has been delivering his standard-issue evil-villain-victory-speech to his men on the deck of his iron-clad ship, suddenly produces Lilah out of nowhere, like a poker player revealing an ace up his sleeve. What the… did he have her hidden in his overcoat, or what? (And by the way, how did Burke know that Jonah loved Lilah? Should we even care, when the screenwriters plainly don’t?)
In time honored tradition of movie villains, Turbull doesn’t kill Jonah when he has the chance (even though he has ordered Hex’s death in the past). No, in a hilarious piece of lip-service screenwriting, Turnbull says he wants Hex to see his moment of triumph – and then locks up Hex and Lilah below decks, from which vantage point, Turbull’s triumph will not be visible (although it will of course, give Hex and Lilah ample opportunity to escape).
This leads to a lengthy but not particularly exciting climax filled with enough idiocy to make you wonder whether JONAH HEX isn’t some kind of extremely well-disguised self-parody. The U.S. government sends a boat to intercept Turnbull, but in a plot development that sounds like something out of THE WILD, WILD WEST, Turnbull is in possession of a super secret sci-fi type weapon. Said weapon was designed for but never built by the government; the U.S. government knows he has it and has seen the destruction it has wrought, but the U.S. officers sent to intercept him basically shrug when he opens fire, and simply wait to be obliterated.
This leaves it up to Jonah and Lilah to save the day. Fortunately, the “nation-killer” weapon has been deliberately designed with a feature that gives the heroes time to stop it. For reasons that would occur only to a screenwriter, the multi-barrel cannon fires off half a dozen rounds that land harmlessly, until a final “trigger” round is fired – and of course, the trigger takes a long time to roll down the conveyor belt before being loaded. This is every bit as silly as it sounds.
This indifferent approach to even the semblance of continuity and common sense perfectly encapsulate the narrative strategy of JONAH HEX. It’s as if the filmmaker thought up some random scenes they wanted to see and simply stitched them altogether for their own – certainly not our – enjoyment.
WHO CARES ABOUT STORY? WHAT ABOUT ACTION?
Presumably no one is sidling up to JONAH HEX hoping to enjoy a sophisticated story. But the film fails to deliver even the basic popcorn entertainment. Jimmy Hayward cannot direct action. The big set-pieces just lie there. He is equally unable to capture that Sergio Leone feel of the calm before the storm, the delicious anticipation of violence, when the hero will finally deliver the payback so richly deserved.
Hayward doesn’t know how to modulate his effects to suit the ups and downs of the story; sure, his cinematographer captures some great outdoor scenery, but it’s never used to set a tone or establish a mood that will underline the drama. JONAH HEX feels shot-by-numbers, but Hayward seems to have used the same numbers over and over. For instance, footage of Hex riding across the open range exhibits a generic quality, as if it were all shot on a single day and intercut at random throughout the film. Whether Jonah is heading to meet Lilah or to track down Turnbull, he always rides at the same pace, and with the same expression.
In a desperate effort to enliven this leaden lack of exciting gunplay, Marco Beltrami’s dramatic score is intermixed with metaloid music by Mastadon. More and more we’re hearing this type of aural assault used to hype trailers (e.g., THE WOLF MAN), but this is one of the first times it has crept into the actual film, which should have stuck closer to the Morricone template.
WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR FACE?
Josh Brolin certainly looks the part of Jonah Hex. He gets off a good line here or there, responding to the oft-asked question, “What happened to your face?” And his awkward response to the unexpected loyalty of the dog he rescued (“I don’t know what to say to you”) is endearing. Unfortunately, the voice over robs him of the mystery that such a character should maintain; we should read his pain buried somewhere deep behind his eyes, not hear it spoken to us directly. And the makeup doesn’t work as well as it should. Not that it looks bad, but it never becomes a part of the performance the way that, for example, Heath Ledger made use of the Joker’s scarred mouth.
Malkovich is too good to phone it in, but this is as close as I ever want to see him get. The script’s one moderately interesting idea is making Turbull the 19th century equivalent of a terrorist (the word doesn’t even exist in English, forcing President Grant [a very sincere Aidan Quinn] to resort to a Spansish coinage adopted by Turnbull’s Mexican comrades). But Turnbull is under-motivated. He hates the North, but it’s not clear that he really wants to help the South (in one of those obligatory movie-villain scenes, he kills an ally for no other reason than to remind us that he is the villain). And Malkovich doesn’t bother trying to find anything underneath the man’s skin that will make him anything more than the cardboard character that the script has given him.
In a development so unexpected it almost makes JONAH HEX worth seeing, Malkovich is overshadowed (even if only briefly) by Fox, who manages to show one decent glimmer of human warmth in a scene with Jonah, letting us know she really loves him (unlike her other clients). It’s almost enough to make you expect something interesting from her character, before she descends to being plot device. (Note to director Hayward: If you’re going to put Fox into that corset, you might as well try to generate a little heat with her character instead of presenting her with all the appeal of a barely noticed fashion accessory.)
The real scene-stealer is Michael Fassbender, as the crazy Irish, violence-loving henchmen to Turnbull. As much as we’re supposed to hate him for being a homicidal thrill killer, his joy de guerre is the film’s bright spot. You wonder if the filmmakers feel the same way, because they are absolutely unable to wring any satisfaction out of his death scene, which plays almost like something that was edited for television.
PROUD TO BE A REBEL – BUT WHAT IS YOUR CAUSE?
As scrambled as the narrative of JONAH HEX is, even more scrambled is the underlying attitude toward the character. Hex fought for the South, and turned against his comrades only when his commanding officer (Turnbull) ordered attacks on civilian targets, including a hospital. This led to a fatal shoot-out with Turnbull’s son, Jeb (an uncredited Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who has one of the best moments when Hex briefly resurrects him to get information on father Turnbull’s whereabouts). Jonah Hex’s change-of-heart regarding the righteousness of the war he was fighting could have been a powerful sequence; alas, it is not shown. It is simply referenced to allow Hex off the hook for fighting on the wrong side of the Civil War, without coming to terms with what the fight was about.
In case this sounds like over-interpretation, the closing credit crawl for JONAH HEX ends with a folk song whose chorus proclaims the singer is proud to be a rebel who fought the Union; he’s sorry only about losing. Is the singer speaking for Jonah Hex? If not, why put the song in at all, especially at the very end, when most viewers will have left the theatre? Is this a shout-out to anyone with lingering resentments over the Civil War?
Lest we conclude that JONAH HEX is endorsing racist sentiments, the filmmakers includes an official Hollywood disclaimer in the form of the token black man from whom Hex purchases weapons. In case the mere presence of this character were not enough to absolve Hex, our token character delivers dialogue insisting that Hex wasn’t for slavery and wasn’t for sessesion; he just didn’t like the government telling him what to do. This makes no sense (after all, the South had a government that told Hex to put on a uniform and fight the North). It’s just an embarrassing form of pandering to the tea-baggers in the audience: Sure I’m sorry the South lost the war that abolished slavery, and now that a black man is in the oval office, I’d like to secede, but that doesn’t mean I’m racist.
Once again, liberal Hollywood turns out not to be so liberal.
JONAH HEX (June 18, 2010). Directed by Jimmy Hayward, Screenplay by Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor; story by William Farmer and Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor, based on the DC Comics character by John Albano and Tony Dezuniga. Cast: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnet, John Gallagher Jr., Tom Wopat, Michael Shannon, Wes Bentley, Julia Jones, Luke James Fleischmann, Rio Hackford, Aidan Quinn.