Jonah Hex (review)

Mostly Dead All Day

Jonah Hex ain’t immortal, he’ll tell ya for free as Jonah Hex opens — it’s just that he’s “cursed with knowing the other side” on accounta being half dead that one time, till Indian magic brought him some of the way back. Now he’s got a Pushing Daisies Ned the Pie Man sort of talent for talkin’ to deceased folk, just for a bit before they have to die again and stay dead.

If Hex (Josh Brolin: Milk, W.) can talk to the dead, then he’s probably the only one (apart from Ned the Pie Man) who could have any meaningful interaction with this movie. Mostly dead is a little alive, a miracle man once said, but that cannot be said about Jonah Hex, which doesn’t seem to know what its own self is all about: is it a comedy? a science fantasy? a supernatural revenge thriller? Throwing in spare nods at these genres like it’s whispering that it doesn’t know what it wants to be means it ends up being not much of anything at all — it’s certainly as lacking in spirit and intention as a corpse.

Hell, Jonah Hex ain’t even really the Western it seems — at first, on the surface — to be, since it appears to take place mostly in the old East(ern part of the United States). Though I still want to make a crack about “suicide bombers of the Old West” — imagine me drawling there — because “suicide bombers of muttonchopped Washington DC” doesn’t have quite the same punch, and because someone appeared to find the notion of bringing the scourge of the early 21st century back in the late 19th “daring” or perhaps “edgy”… and maybe it might have been, handled in the right way.

There’s no right way about anything here. Maybe it’s all the fault of the source graphic novel, but probably not, since it appears to bear little resemblance to what’s on screen. I suspect we can blame screenwriters Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (they of Crank fame) for completely failing to find anything actually relevant in Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich: Burn After Reading, Changeling), Confederate officer turned “terroriste,” as the Mexicans call him; no really, that’s this flick’s idea of humor (at least I think that was intended to be funny). Turnbull and his plan to steal a steampunk weapon of mass destruction and kill lots of people on America’s big birthday — July 4, 1876 — utterly fails to work as would-be deranged comedy, nor as straight-up suspense drama, nor as anything truly uneasy-making. A 19th-century touchstone for modern political issues? Nah. Who wants icky pertinence in their summer action movies? But then why the “terroriste” bullshit?

Often bad movies feel like they’ve been chopped up, cut down from something that might — might — have been better, and that’s the case here. With a running time of, by my watch, 72 minutes — not the 84 or 87 I’ve seen around, not even when the padded-out end credits are added in — there’s plenty of space for a bit of character, a bit of color, a bit of anything to make this feel like a fully fleshed-out story instead of a disjointed jumble of barely connected setpieces. Faces appear and disappear and reappear again with no rhyme or reason, such as Will Arnett’s (When in Rome, G-Force) army officer, who gets to serve a mysterious double duty: The question of why he’s here at all is compounded by the conundrum of whether he’s supposed to be funny, merely because it’s Arnett. (He’s not funny, but neither is anything else that appears to be aiming at humor here.) Why did director Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!) torture poor Megan Fox (Jennifer’s Body, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), transforming her via a squeezed-tight corset into something disturbingly freakish when she barely has cause to be here at all, except as a pawn that can be used against Hex? Who is the Charleston businessman (played by Wes Bentley: American Beauty) who wanders in and out of the action to talk to Turnbull about things we’ve heard nothing about? Why not give us even a little bit more of Hex’s story with the Indians, instead of leaving it all to look like the flick is simply obnoxiously appropriating a bit of Native culture for effect, for a dash of spiritual whatsit?

“The very fate of our nation may rest on Jonah Hex,” President Grant (Aidan Quinn: Nine Lives, Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius) announces at some juncture that is, perhaps, meant to be vital. That’s probably the funniest line in the movie. Or the scariest. Either way, as long as the very fate of nothing rests on Jonah Hex, this is one disaster that will quickly be forgotten.

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