Jonah Hex Reviewed, for Posterity

06/22/2010 11:00 AM |

Seriously... what went wrong?
  • Seriously… what went wrong?

Jesse Hassenger witnessed the year’s most egregious studio misfire and has come to tell of it, quickly, before we forget all about its existence the way Warner Bros. would like us to.

Jonah Hex could be shown in film school as a shining example of how shortening a movie does not necessarily make it move faster. Cut to the bone at seventy-five minutes before the credits role, this assemblage of a DC Comics adaptation grabs at every possible shortcut—intermittent narration; possible actual scenes smushed into montages; an animated origin story—yet feels, in the end, not like a quick and dirty 80-minute thriller but rather an extremely choppy 100-minute one. It’s not tedious, exactly, but the shortcuts haven’t saved anyone much time or effort. If anything, they hack away at a cast otherwise capable of supporting Josh Brolin’s face-scarred man with a silly name: John Malkovich (as the Confederate villain!), Will Arnett (playing it straight!), Michael Fassbender (as an Irish henchman!), Aidan Quinn (as Ulysses S. Grant!), and Michael Shannon (who, judging by his onscreen “and” credit, at some point had more than a single line).

Yes, Hex is a post-Civil War semi-gothic western with a power-mad Confederate and heroes recruited by the Grant administration. Which means that perhaps the strangest thing about the movie, apart from the belief that another fifteen or twenty minutes would make the whole thing far, far worse, is the fact that Warner Brothers paid for what is essentially a serious take on Wild Wild West minus international superstar Will Smith. Secretly, I find this wrongheadedness sort of delightful: I have a weak spot for late nineteenth century America repurposed for pulp, with its corruption and manginess and fallout from the industrial revolution.

Jonah Hex is plenty mangy, with a grizzled bounty-hunting antihero who can extract key information from corpses yet keeps a variety of animal sidekicks (if you see a horse, an adorable dog, and a murder of crows together, Jonah Hex might be in town! Or possibly Sharon, Lois, and/or Bram). It’s by no means a good movie; it falls into that crack between boilerplate stupidity and delirious over-the-top silliness. If it had been directed, as originally planned, by credited screenwriters Neveldine and Taylor, of the Crank series, it might’ve cleared the jump. But its catalog of freak occurrences (substituting for a story that would presumably be wracked with post-Civil War guilt, had it even the tiniest bit of gravity) has a ramshackle semi-steampunk sort of charm: there’s a throwaway detail about how the film’s doomsday MacGuffin was designed by Eli Whitney! And horse-mounted mega-guns! And an abbreviated fight with some kind of weird snake man! (Escaped from a Barnum attraction, no doubt.) It’s sloppy trash for which no actors can be blamed, not even Megan Fox in her all-too-appropriate fifteen minutes as a tough prostitute, wearing hooker-red lipstick that may or may not also have been engineered by Mr. Whitney. Like everything else in this production, she’s a thinly conceived gimmick providing the most momentary of diversions before inspiring a weirdly affectionate sort of pity.