Film Review: Jonah Hex

An intriguing comic-book hero is left stranded in a half-baked film adaptation that bears the marks of severe post-production tinkering.

I'll say one thing for this summer's latest comic-book-derived feature, Jonah Hex: At least it isn't another origin story. Too many big-screen versions of these amazing fantasies waste an awful lot of time explaining who the central hero is and how he came to be, exposition that was generally dispensed with in a few pages (or even just a few panels) back in the golden age of comics.

Jonah Hex thankfully follows in that older tradition, outlining the titular anti-hero's secret origin in the first ten minutes of the film. A soldier in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) betrays his unit and kills his best friend, actions that understandably put him on the outs with his commander (and father to the aforementioned pal), Colonel Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich). Since Turnbull is a firm believer in the eye-for-an-eye school of justice, he shows the turncoat the error of his ways by murdering his wife and son right in front of his eyes, then branding the poor guy's face and leaving him for the crows.

Rescued by a Native American tribe just as he's slipping away into the great beyond, Jonah is nursed back to health and returns from his near-death experience with a special power: the ability to talk to dead people. At first, he uses his new ability—as well as his already exceptional skills with guns and fisticuffs—to track down and kill Turnbull, but when his nemesis apparently burns up in an inferno not of Jonah's making, he instead pursues a lucrative career as a bounty hunter, capturing evildoers and causing a lot of bodily harm and property damage in the process.

So far, director Jimmy Hayward and screenwriters Brian Neveldine and Mark Taylor deserve a big "Yee haw!" for swiftly establishing Jonah Hex as a compelling anti-hero, albeit one who differs substantially from his comic-book incarnation. (That Jonah was never able to resurrect the dead through his touch—a plot point that seems lifted from the much-missed TV series "Pushing Daisies" rather than any one of the character’s four-color adventures.) Unfortunately, after introducing us to this great character, the filmmakers have no clear idea where to take him next. Instead, they plug Hex into a generic revenge plot that finds him once again chasing after Turnbull (who of course isn’t really dead) before the colonel launches a devastating attack on the Union on the Fourth of July.

During the course of its ultra-brief 82-minute running time, Jonah Hex attempts to wear many hats—among them old-fashioned western, supernatural action film, El Topo-like acid trip and steampunk-style science fiction—but models none of them well. The film's general messiness is likely the result of a difficult post-production process; certainly the version that's being released in theatres looks and feels like a picture that's been taken apart and stitched back together numerous times in the editing room. Key scenes and storylines seem truncated, certain characters are abruptly introduced only to just as abruptly vanish for long stretches of time, and voiceover is used to stitch together the gaping seams in the narrative. Within individual scenes there are a number of obvious continuity errors and repeated shots, as if the editors were swapping out takes right up to the last minute. It’s rare to see a would-be summer blockbuster arrive in theatres so clearly compromised, which suggests that the studio just wanted to get Jonah Hex done rather than done right.

But that approach cheats both the audience and the actors, most of whom apparently showed up on set ready to have a good time. Jonah Hex’s duster and hat proves to be a comfortable fit on Brolin, who plays the role with the right mixture of bad-ass brio and emotional conviction. And while Malkovich largely phones in his performance as yet another villain, the British actor Michael Fassbender picks up the slack with a gleefully menacing turn as Turnbull’s psychotic second-in-command, Burke.

As for Jonah Hex’s lone female cast member, one Megan Fox, she displays more fire here than in her somnambulant turns in both Transformers movies, but the filmmakers’ emphasis remains on her looks rather than her acting. It doesn’t help that her character—a “lady of the night” by the name of Lilah—is one of the biggest casualties of the film’s rough journey through the editing room; despite being third-billed and prominently featured in the trailers, Fox only appears in about four or five scenes of the finished film. (Sorry, fanboys, one of those scenes is not Fox’s much-rumored first onscreen sex scene—in order to secure that all-important PG-13 rating, the movie prudishly fades to black just as Jonah and Lilah pull each other close.)

An animation director making his live-action debut, Hayward demonstrates a decent eye for composition, but again it’s hard to say how much of his vision actually made it to the screen. The theatrical cut seems largely created by committee, especially in the action sequences that slavishly follow the current house style for blockbusters—i.e., over-edited and chaotically choreographed. (It’s tempting to give Hayward credit for some of the movie’s weirder touches—including a fever-dream sequence in which Hex and Turnbull battle each other in the afterlife—but those could also be the inventions of Neveldine and Taylor, the strange minds behind the Crank franchise.)

When a comic book isn’t working, it’s given the reboot treatment and a different creative team comes onboard to start the series again from the beginning. Jonah Hex is a comic-book movie in desperate need of a reboot.