Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Jonah Hex (2010)

For years, Warner Brothers would struggle to turn DC Comics characters that weren't Batman or Superman into successful movies. Before their current, and no less fraught cinematic universe, the studio would produce two movies based on lesser known heroes. “Green Lantern” would be a misfire and box office disappointment. “Jonah Hex,” meanwhile, would be a catastrophic flop. It earned utterly acidic reviews and didn't even make back a third of its budget. Neveldine/Taylor wrote the screenplay and planned to direct. However, the duo probably realized the project was doomed and left before filming began. Instead, animation director Jimmy Haywood would helm the film. He hasn't attempted another live action feature since.

Jonah Hex is a bounty hunter during the American Old West. An unrepentant Confederate soldier, Hex still wears his fading gray uniform. During the war, he refused to obey an order made by the mad general Quentin Turnball. Years later, Turnball would appear to murder Hex's family and brutally deform his face. Even more years later, Hex discovers that Turnbull is still alive. Alive and planning to build a superweapon that could destroy the United States. Hex is reluctantly recruited by the U.S. government to stop Turnbull, giving him a chance to avenge his family's death.

By all accounts, “Jonah Hex” had a troubled production. The initial script by Neveldine/Taylor was not well liked by Josh Brolin or Megan Fox. Later, the script would be heavily rewritten, to tone down the humor and problematic aspects that the duo are known for. Warners Brothers would rewrite and re-cut the film multiple times. This difficult production is evident in the final film. The movie is only 81 minutes long, an unheard of length for a major action film, suggesting a lot was cut out. Moreover, Brolin performs a totally unnecessary voice-over narration throughout the film, a likely last ditch effort to salvage the plot. The story features many odd, unexplained detours. Such as Hex imagining a final battle with Turnbull in his mind or a truly baffling scene where Indians perform a magical ritual to bring Hex back to life. Those Indians, by the way, do not feature in any other scene.

In the comic books, Jonah Hex has had some far-out adventures. Frequent time travel has enabled him to team up with Batman and other heroes. He's fought monsters and zombies before. At one point, he was even tossed into a post-apocalyptic future. Despite these elements, Hex has always just been a hideously scarred western hero. For some odd reason, this adaptation gifts Hex with a superpower. His near death experience has given him the ability to talk to the dead. Whenever he touches a corpse, it springs back to life. As long as he holds onto it, the dead body can give him information. This ability comes with a lot of convoluted rules, which Brolin has to explain. This ability has little effects on the overall story, making its inclusion even stranger. (I wish I could blame this one on WB's rewriting and reediting but apparently it was present in Neveldine/Taylor's original script.)

Visually, “Jonah Hex” varies between being kind of interesting and utterly incoherent. Jimmy Haywood's handle on action seems okay in the beginning. A Sergio Leone-inspired shoot-out in the first scene, which features a Gatling gun attached to Hex's horse, works alright. Later, a sequence involving dynamite-firing crossbows is sort of cool. A pit fight between a burly human and a snake-like mutant actually features some dynamic action. Yet other scenes in “Jonah Hex” are poorly assembled. Most of the action scenes in the final act are set on a darkened boat. They are just about impossible to follow. Other scenes are hastily edited, the movie leaping between locations without much rhyme or reason. The CGI is also pretty ugly, though that probably wasn't Haywood's fault.

Fans of the “Jonah Hex” comics largely hated this movie but most agree that Josh Brolin playing the title part was at least a good idea. (Though many still wanted to see Thomas Jane in the part, including Thomas Jane.) Brolin does what he can to salvage the movie. He's fittingly gruff, unapologetic, and ready for action. When the character's rage shines through, you get the sense that Brolin probably would've been great in a much better film. The make-up that recreates Hex's famous facial deformity is, sadly, undeniably awkward. Having a dangling piece of rubber in front of his mouth likely hampered Brolin's performance too.

The supporting cast is less consistent. John Malkovich sleepwalks through his part as Turnbull, dryly delivering his evil plans without much feeling or conviction. Michael Fassbender hams it up to cartoonish level as Burke, Turnbull's main henchman. He rarely misses a chance to mug for the camera. Megan Fox – surprise, surprise – is terrible as Lilah, Hex's prostitute love interest. She attempts to lend some “girl power” attitude to the part, which is a deeply ill fitting choice. Moreover, Fox's line reading is wooden and her body language suggests she'd rather be anywhere else. (That she's shot exclusively in a porno-esque soft glow doesn't help.) This furthers my theory that Fox isn't a bad actress so much as she just hates most of the movies she's in.

When a movie has as messy a production as “Jonah Hex” did, you can't really blame any of the actors or filmmakers. Who can act when the script is constantly being rewritten? Who can direct when the studio has conflicting visions for the film? It's unsurprising that “Jonah Hex” is a fiasco.  Bad decisions were made at every turn. Yet the film has enough interesting aspects that you at least wonder what a good version – with a wildly different screenplay, largely different cast, more experienced director and less pushy producers – might have looked like. I can't even really hate “Jonah Hex,” though I totally sympathize with those that do. It's more of a doomed movie than a bad movie. Fucked at every turn, it never had a chance. Neveldine/Taylor were smart to get out when they did. [4/10]

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