He's got a burnt face and a hole in his cheek that's bigger than the hole in his heart! He touches dead people and brings them back to life! He kills people who ask rude questions! He's wanted by a sweaty prostitute and the President of the United States! He's Jonah Hex, Confederate soldier turned bounty hunter turned savior of our nation!
The big screen version of the DC comic book series begins with glimpses of what might have been -- a supernatural Western featuring a murderous leading man dueling a Civil War-era terrorist consumed by hate -- before collapsing into a confusing, disjointed heap of hopped-up action scenes. Directed by Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!), Jonah Hex is Crank in the Old West, which shouldn't be a big surprise since Neveldine and Taylor (Crank, Crank: High Voltage, Gamer) are credited with the screenplay. On the positive side, Josh Brolin infuses the title character with a weary yet lively persona, a man who is quick to take offense at any perceived slight while still nursing an open wound of grief over the loss of his wife and child.
Jonah was forced to watch his family burn to death at the command of Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), a rogue Confederate General seeking revenge for the death of his son at Jonah's hand. Jonah was meant to be executed as well, but he survived, gained mysterious powers, and became a trigger-happy bounty hunter. Now the only person he trusts is Lilah (Megan Fox), a prostitute who is so hot that she's constantly covered in a sheen of dewy perspiration.
Presumed dead himself, Turnbull comes roaring back to life with a series of terrorist acts that attract the attention of President Ulysses S. Grant (Aidan Quinn). Grant is concerned that Turnbull's actions will undermine the country's confidence in its government and rip apart the fragile peace of the post-Civil War era. When evidence indicates that Turnbull has captured a secret, incredibly powerful military weapon described as a "nation killer," Grant orders that Jonah Hex be set upon the case.
Before watching the movie, I was only vaguely aware of Jonah Hex's long lineage. The character was created for DC Comics in the early 70s by writer John Albano and artist Tony DeZuniga; more recently, he was resurrected in 2005 and has been appearing monthly, as written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti. I've read and enjoyed six or eight issues of the Gray / Palmiotti series, in which Jonah is consistently a merciless anti-hero who, nonetheless, displays honorable scruples. From those few samples, he seems like a worthy heir to the Western canon.
The movie, however, is less interested in exploring its own version of Jonah Hex than it is in creating an action vehicle for a new kind of superhero. The lead character, whoever he is supposed to be, is besides the point; the movie just needs a big body to dispense wisecracks and kill people.
The initial scenes establish Jonah as a laconic bounty hunter, steeped in blood and violence, and indifferent to human suffering. No wonder he has a bigger price on his head than the criminals he's bringing to justice! He has a mean streak a mile wide, as demonstrated by his shooting a man in cold blood because the dope starts to joke about Jonah's disfigured face. How rude! Yup, Jonah is a bad ass bounty hunter with a nasty sense of humor.
Beneath the bluster, though, he has a tender heart, as we see when he spends the night with the lovely Lilah. It's an odd scene, in that it's lit like a photo shoot for a men's magazine, but it's tailored to showcase Megan Fox's eyes and cheekbones. As Lilah, she's a PG-13 prostitute, talking tough without using profanity and flashing barely enough skin to tease. It's an effective performance, but she sweats so much I was worried that she would pass out from the heat.
Jonah's character does a 180, however, when he's asked to stop Turnbull. Jonah is transformed into an avenging spirit, hell bent on righteous revenge against the man who killed his family. He's no longer a rootless, scrappy cowboy. The recasting of the character is furthered by the supernatural elements that are introduced. By touching a dead person, Jonah can bring the individual back to sputtering life, as long as he remains in constant physical contact with the body. Jonah himself seems resistant to death, surviving gunshots to his chest at point-blank range from Burke (Michael Fassbender), Turnbull's dutiful lieutenant.
The gunshots are supposed to mean something significant -- in the bedroom scene, Lilah pointed out all the bullet wounds that scar Jonah's chest -- and they trigger some kind of dream sequence, mixed with flashbacks. Did Jonah die and then come back to life?
Darned if I know; the movie leaves it mysterious and unexplained. But that's OK, because it gives the filmmakers an excuse to make the scene all weird and trippy, with day-glo colors splashed about. On balance, that seems to be the movie's aesthetic as a whole: don't worry about the details, just keep the action going.
That might be excusable if the action scenes were comprehensible. Instead, they're a jumbled mess of poorly-assembled images; you can't tell who's doing what to whom, it's just sound and fury, gunshots and explosions, accompanied by the heavy metal guitar-heavy power-chording of the musical score by Marco Beltrami and Mastodon, and then it's over and someone is running away and bodies are everywhere.
Making matters worse, a number of scenes are obviously meant to be punctuated by a bloody / grisly kill shot at the end, but the kill shot is missing, presumably to preserve the PG-13 rating. Maybe some wild and over the top violence would have helped give the picture some oomph, which it's sadly missing.
To compound the problem further, the villain of the piece is a listless, bored man. John Malkovich, who has a rich history of playing juicy bad guys, can barely muster the energy to say his lines. In the same way that I worried about whether Megan Fox would die from heat exhaustion, I began to worry that Malkovich was ill. Then again, maybe he didn't read the script until after he arrived on set and got sick when he realized what he'd have to say.
Aidan Quinn, as President Grant, is similarly defined by his bushy beard, and Michael Fassbender can be identified by his bare face and tattooed body. That's a trio of good actors who have very little to do, which is a huge waste of their talents and our time.
Indeed, Jonah Hex runs barely 80 minutes (including credits) but feels longer. Instead of building to a climax, it stumbles to the finish line. I couldn't help wishing that the real Jonah Hex would show up and put the thing out of its misery. It would be a mercy killing.