Jonah Hex (DVD)

When will they make Jonah Hex Chex Mix?

Jonah Hex rose to fame (infamy?) after starring in DC Comics’ Weird Western Tales in the 1970s. He’s appeared off an on since then, in various forms, throughout the years, ultimately ending up, appropriately, with DC’s Vertigo imprint, featuring comics for mature readers. The character is memorable for his scarred face and his very, very bad attitude. The Western setting provides him different kinds of adventures and visuals than the other DC heroes. With superhero comics equaling big bucks for Hollywood, it’s only natural that Hex would get the blockbuster treatment. This version, though, was a dud at the box office, perplexing the average viewer and enraging longtime comic book fans. Will Jonah Hex rise from the dead on DVD?

During the Civil War, Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin, The Goonies) was a decorated soldier. A Southern general, Turnbull (John Malkovitch, In the Line of Fire) believed Hex killed his family, so Turnbull returned the favor, slaughtering Hex’s wife and child right in front of him, while also horribly scarring Hex’s face and leaving him for dead. Hex was brought back from the brink by a magical Native American ritual, leaving him with the ability to communicate with the dead. The still-disfigured Hex hunted down Turnbull for revenge, only to discover Turnbull dying in a fire. His lust for vengeance not satiated, Hex uses his supernatural powers to become the gloomiest, orneriest bounty in the Old West.

Everything in the above paragraph happens in the first five minutes of the movie.

The story proper picks up as Hex is approached by the government, with a job offer. Turnbull is still alive. He’s a fugitive from justice with his own army of henchmen, and a plot to destroy the United States. Jonah takes the job, still hungering for revenge, but does so playing by his own rules. Along the way, he befriends a prostitute, Lilah (Megan Fox, Jennifer’s Body), who hopes he’ll take her away from her hard life. Eventually, Hex clashes with Turnbull, who is working to construct a massive superweapon. It’s gunfights, explosions, and vengeance—all in a day’s work for Jonah Hex.

At the time Jonah Hex had its short run in theaters, there were rumors about a lot of troubles going on behind the scenes as it was made. IMDb alleges that animator turned director Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who) was replaced during post by director Francis Lawrence (Constantine). Changes like this show on screen right from the beginning, as we get a narrator talking to us over a few shots of an elaborate battle scene. It’s clear that this was filmed as a big set piece, but we only get a fleeting glimpse of it, making it clear that big changes were made in the editing room. This continues as the exposition of Jonah’s origin is rushed through as quickly as possible, with a cheap-looking animation sequence that looks out of place compared with the rest of the movie. Sure, editing room changes like these happen in a lot of movies, but they’re not so obvious about it.

Granted, Jonah Hex, the grizzled, tormented, disfigured antihero that he is, would be a tough character to get right on screen. He’s not what you’d call “relatable.” The movie takes shortcuts in the hopes that audience will side with him, thanks to a basic revenge plot. People enjoy revenge plots in movies, simplistic though they are, because we all can relate. Everybody’s ticked off at somebody, and would like to take out vicious revenge, but without that whole “going to jail afterward” thing. In Jonah Hex’s case, though, the character would benefit from some more complexity, not less. If you take a look at his original origins from the comics, you’ll find a backstory that’s more complicated, but just as emotional. The best Jonah Hex stories get inside this guy’s head and really explores his psychology. The movie shortchanges that by sticking the familiar “you killed my family and now I’m going to kill you” shtick, making what could have been a memorable character and turns him into a standard gun-totin’ action hero.

Consider how Jonah’s look is portrayed on screen. The makeup recreates the stringy piece of skin that covers one side of his mouth (what is that?), and yet I can’t help but wonder if he couldn’t look even more grotesque. In the comics, his right eye is often drawn as unnaturally bulbous with a sickly yellow color, and his hair is sometimes a long, white stingy mess. The scarring is instead downplayed on the actor’s face somewhat, and in the few scenes where he loses his hat, he has good-looking movie star hair. Allegedly, the makeup was lessened so the actor could better emote. Aaron Eckhard didn’t seem to have any trouble emoting as Two-Face in The Dark Knight, and his gruesome visage was a lot more like what I’d expect Jonah Hex to look like. Considering that Jonah’s scars are often hidden in shadows, and almost always hidden on the cover art and posters, I’d argue that the creators were trying to hide his scars and instead hope audiences will only look at the star’s good looks. I’m well aware that sex appeal sells movie tickets, but deemphasizing his mutilated visage is still a disservice to what the Jonah Hex character is supposed to be about.

Things get only more frustrating after the character is introduced. There’s very little consistency as to what he can or can’t do. In the opening action scene, he dodges bullets and moves with superhuman speed. In later scenes, he has trouble fist fighting just one guy. High tech weapons he uses once never show up again anywhere else in the movie. If the freaky Native American ritual can heal bullet wounds and bring Hex back from the verge of death, why can’t they also heal his face?

Then there are more questionable edits. At one point, Jonah sneaks into Turnbull’s headquarters, just as Turnbull is explaining his evil plot to one of his cronies. Things are edited together so slapdash, that for a moment there, I though the characters were in the same room and Turnbull was talking to Hex. It’s a bad sign for your action movie when you can’t tell which character is standing where. Even worse, though, is what could have been the most fun scene in the movie. Jonah tracks down a bad guy at some sort of Western pro wrestling event, where a crowd of cowboys are watching two half-human beastly guys fight it out in a pit. The villains get the better of Jonah, throwing him unarmed into the pit with the two monsters. I sat forward, thinking, “Oh, boy, here comes a big fight scene.” Instead, the movie immediately cuts to outside, with Jonah leaving the arena, having beaten the two inhuman fighters off screen. If your movie is about a supernatural cowboy battling monsters, shouldn’t we see the supernatural cowboy battling the monsters?

Megan Fox was all over the movie’s advertising, again emphasizing sex appeal. Her character is haunted by a tragic past, but she remains strong and powerful in battle, while also being caring and heartfelt…wait, aren’t these the qualities of a so-called “Mary Sue?” Malkovich, normally one of the best villain actors out there, looks bored throughout the whole movie, and doesn’t give Turnbull much personality. Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Bastards) plays a heavily-tattooed Irish martial artist, to which I responded, “The movie has a heavily-tattooed Irish martial artist all of a sudden?” A bunch of other likable actors are given little to do, including Will Arnett (Arrested Development), Wes Bently (Ghost Rider), Lance Reddick (Fringe), Aidan Quinn (Third Watch) and even Tom Wopat (The Dukes of Hazzard).

Is anything enjoyable here? Some of the retro-tech in the movie is cool, in an almost-but-not-quite steampunk kind of way, but the filmmakers take the movie too far with silliness such as giant machine guns strapped to either side of a horse. What horse would stand still while those things are going off? The finale has a lot of cool fighting and explosions, but will anyone be invested enough in this mess to care by the time the movie gets there? Some might argue that the movie is unintentionally funny, but you’ll be struggling too hard to figure out what’s going on in any given scene. So any enjoyment you get from this movie comes with a “but.”

Despite the slightly dark subject matter, the movie is nonetheless bright and colorful, and the DVD shows off all those rich colors, especially the vivid green forests Jonah often rides through. The sound is good, with little to no apparent flaws. For bonus features, all we get are a couple of ho-hum deleted scenes. OK, so the creators probably don’t want to dish all the dirt about what went wrong because they’d like to make more movies in the future, but how about a look at the character’s history in the comics, or featurettes on the huge sets, period costumes, special effects, or whatever?

A Jonah Hex movie should have been groundbreaking, a psychologically disturbing Western with a dark supernatural twist, centered around a world-weary antihero, one with a past full of tragedy and fire in his eyes. Instead, the movie we get is a PG-13 by-the-numbers action movie romp that’s so poorly edited it’s nearly incomprehensible. Skip it, and hope that ten years or so from now, someone will reboot the whole thing and give Hex the movie he deserves.

The Verdict

Guilty, pardner.

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