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The Cinematic Misfire of ‘Jonah Hex’ [Movie Review]

Here’s the thing about Jonah Hex: In comics, he was a pretty revolutionary character. He’s one of the first real anti-heroes to catch on in comics, trading on the striking visual of his scarred face and the distinctive uniform of the Confederacy that under any other circumstances should’ve marked him as a villain, operating in a moral area that’s just as gray as his coat. He’s got a hook to him that other characters don’t, which (along with the snappy name) is why he persists when, except for the occasional shot at a revival, the Western genre in comics rode off into the sunset quite a while back.

The problem is that while this was a revolutionary idea for comics when Hex was created, movies had arrived at that conclusion during the previous decade. You can draw a straight line from films like “A Fistful of Dollars” and “The Wild Bunch” to Hex’s first appearance in 1972, with creators being influenced by Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah’s use of moral ambiguity and harsh violence from the start on through the stories they’re telling today.

As unique as the character is on the page, the screen had already had its say on a lot of what makes him so appealing, which is when when the first trailer for the “Jonah Hex” movie came out, I wondered why anyone would even bother. Nothing in the film needs Hex as a specific character to work (least of all his supernatural powers, but I’ll get to that in a minute), and as allegedly “hot” as comic book movies might be right now, it’s not like you’ll be pulling in the audiences with a character that in pop culture terms is about as obscure as you can be while still starring in a self-titled ongoing series for five years.

Then I actually saw the movie, and realized that they didn’t actually want to make a “Jonah Hex” movie at all. What they actually wanted to do was remake 1999′s “Wild Wild West,” only dumber.Seriously, when you hit the broad strokes, the movies have virtually the exact same plot: During the Reconstruction, an evil ex-Confederate bent on destroying the Union creates a super-weapon, leading President Grant to send the only man who can stop him. The only difference is that “Wild Wild West’s” infamous giant metal spider has now been replaced with — I swear to God — a six-shooter the size of a Volkswagen bus.

And then there’s fact that the movie version of Jonah Hex has super-powers, which I can only assume is the result of someone in Hollywood hearing the word “Hex” and making the immediate jump to the supernatural: “Hex! That means magic! Kids love magic! They can’t sell tickets fast enough for that movie where the girl’s in love with Dracula and the Wolfman! Play up the magic and you’ve got a deal!” Keep in mind, however, that having never actually been to Hollywood, my mental image of studio execs is equal parts “Three Amigos” and J. Jonah Jameson, but I can’t imagine I’m all that far off from the truth, and it all works out to something that walks the line between bland, silly, and awful.

As to the plot, none of these elements would be out of place in what I imagine a good Jonah Hex movie to be. The theme of the (figurative) ghosts of the Confederacy coming back to haunt Jonah is one that the comics have gone to…

…time…
…and time again, and the plot of having to stop a super-weapon before it destroys America is pretty typical. It’s actually the basis for the Jonah Hex episode of “Batman: The Animated Series,” which was (and still is) the best version of the character outside of comics.Even the supernatural elements aren’t that far off the mark. My two favorite Jonah Hex stories, Joe Lansdale, Tim Truman and Sam Glanzman’s “Two-Gun Mojo” and “Riders of the Worm and Such,” are both thoroughly rooted in the supernatural. But what Joe Lansdale — who, by the way, writes screenplays — gets that the makers of the movie don’t is that it only really works is that if he’s a normal (well, comic book normal) man man facing something beyond his reckoning. It’s when Hex is pitted against the supernatural — not part of it — that the story really works.

In effect, his “super-power” is the same thing that let him tough out getting his face burned (or whipped, or mysteriously scarred, depending on which origin you feel like going with) and come back as a man to whom death is his constant companion: Grit. He is, quite simply, a bad dude, and swapping that out for a more extreme version of Ned from “Pushing Daisies” with a time limit more suited to growling exposition directly at the camera doesn’t do anyone any favors.

Unfortunately, the only thing they get from Lansdale’s books is the joke about how he cut himself shaving, although in one of the more inept bits of tough-guy dialogue, he later responds to someone asking about his face by killing them and then telling the corpse that he’s out of clever retorts. Guys, that’s the kind of setup that really only works if you set it up more than once. Otherwise you just have a hero who, much like the screenplay, is out of clever dialogue after one joke.

But even with all the elements in place for a movie that might at least be enjoyable, director Jimmy Hayward decided to just go ahead and crank out a movie that, at its best points, is completely braindead and shoddily put together. Apparently popping open Microsoft Word and doing a find-and-replace to swap out “STEAMPUNK COWBOY” with “JONAH HEX” took so much effort that making sense was relegated to a secondary concern.Jonah’s narration at the beginning establishes that John Malkovich’s character, Turnbull, died in a fire before Hex could catch up to him and kill him himself. Obviously he didn’t die, but considering that Movie Hex has the ability to speak to the dead and that the movie goes out of its way to establish that the dead can both spy on anyone they knew when they were alive and talk to each other in the afterlife, why does it take so long for him to figure this out? Turnbull himself makes a big deal about how his super-weapon was so dangerous that even the government decided not to build it, so why is it that right before this conversation, he steals the actual parts to the weapon from the government? Never explained.

And that’s just where the nonsense starts. It continues throughout, with my favorite example being how it fades out for Movie Hex and Megan Fox to have sex, then fades back in, then fades out so they can have sex again about 90 seconds later, fading back in so that they can continue their conversation. Then there’s the checklist of extreme action movie cliches that the movie ticks off like clockwork — bad guy with face tattoos, a sequence where a guy pulls out some lucha wrestling moves, and so on — though it hits its peak in this weird dream sequence / purgatory / mystical realm of metaphor that John Malkovich and Josh Brolin have a fistfight twice, once in the middle of the movie and once again at the end where they’re having an actual, non-dream, non-metaphorical fistfight.

And then there’s the fact that this is a movie where not only is the only female character a prostitute, it’s a movie where the only female character is a prostitute played by Megan Fox. Her character — Lilah, your standard-issue hooker with a heart of… well, not gold, but at least some sort of shiny metal — is actually one of two parts of the movie that I was actually legitimately shocked by, as it’s revealed about ten minutes from the end that she’s actually Tallulah Black, a character created by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Phil Noto in the current “Jonah Hex” comics.

The reason this surprised me? Here’s a side by side of the movie and comic versions:

Sharp-eyed readers may note that the comic book version of Tallulah Black has a bunch of scars on her face and one eye, a pretty telling visual cue that she’s meant to be a sort of female version of Hex himself.

Now, I’m not trying to hate on Megan Fox for being pretty — that is, after all her job — but I am mystified as to why the producers thought it was a good idea to throw Tallulah Black in there. Her name’s only mentioned in one scene that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, so what does tying her into a character that a) is even more obscure than Hex himself, and b) has only the slightest resemblance to her movie counterpart (surprise! they’re both hookers) do for the film?

The worst bit, though, was a sequence where Hex talks to the guy who makes his weapons, a black man who basically forgives Movie Hex for fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Seriously.

This is pretty problematic on a number of levels, not the least of which is that when the movie gives itself the one opportunity to explore Jonah as a veteran of the losing side of the Civil War, they just go right ahead and have a black guy actually say “I know you didn’t really believe in slavery,” in an attempt to forgive the sin of having a confederate protagonist. I’m well aware of the fact that not every single man who fought for the South was motivated by a desire to have slaves, but this is pure lazy storytelling that not only tells the audience what to think, but also ignores the fact that whether or not it was why he was fighting, slavery was certainly something he was fighting for. It’s an element of the character that’s been used to explore Hex as a character in stories by better writers, but here, it’s been “cleaned up” by a movie trying to package itself as though “brainless” were a compliment.

To be entirely fair, the movie’s not a truly horrible way to spend two hours. For one thing, I saw the Scott Pilgrim trailer on the big screen, and that was pretty cool. And in the movie itself, the makeup effects are actually pretty good — even if they do require Brolin to speak every line of dialogue through gritted teeth, which means a good chunk of what he says comes out as “grrrmblemrrmble” — and while it’s introduced with some pretty dodgy CGI, the opening titles are done as a very nice-looking animated version of Eduardo Risso’s artwork. Also, if you can completely divorce it from what it’s supposed to be, Jonah Hex walking down a hallway blowing dudes away with a pair of crossbows that shoot dynamite is almost silly enough to be enjoyable.

And that’s the thing about the movie: Even though it wouldn’t have been all that true to the character, a movie where Jonah Hex has to stop John Malkovitch from assassinating President Grant with a ten foot-tall six shooter sounds like it’d be fun. And yet, here we are, with a “Jonah Hex” movie that gets everything wrong, especially the part where it’s supposed to be entertaining.

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