Want to know how to make a bad movie? Take a character who’s basically every cliche in his genre rolled into one portable unit, plug him into a script picked over by the proverbial thousand monkeys, and give the whole project to a director who’s spent the last ten years slaving away on the Pixar plantation.
Sometimes you can just see the train coming. As if that weren’t enough, the whole package comes to us from one of my ancient enemies: Akiva Goldsman, the man who made a mess called I Am Legend…and even bigger mess called Batman and Robin…and whose production company, Weed Road Pictures, put up the money for this mess. So Jonah Hex has finally limped its way onto video, branded one of the Worst Films of Summer 2010 by the little subconscious voice that makes all my snap judgments. Was it correct? Is this the new Wild Wild West?
Well, it certainly starts out like a mirror image of that now-legendary Will Smith outing. Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) was a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War under General Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich). In our pre-credit prologue, we see Turnbull kill Jonah’s family and scar Jonah’s face with a branding iron, all for the twin alleged crimes of desertion…and something about killing Turnbull’s son. Blah-blah-blah. Cue Defining Element of Tragedy. Cue credits.
Jonah’s left for dead because killing him outright would kill the plot. Wouldn’t you know it, those pesky Crow Indians intervene, rescuing Jonah from death with their magic medicine. So right away we know that, either the old Hex homestead was somewhere in Montana, or the people who produced this film know jack shit about the Crow. I’m going to go with the latter option since the Crow’s overall contribution to this flick amounts to exactly zip…aside from allowing the film to be enamored with big, black (mostly CGI) bird imagery…and vainly justifying Jonah’s inexplicable powers to commune with the dead (powers not present in the comics).
Yes, that’s right. Jonah Hex is Allison DuBois from Medium. Can’t you hear the pitch now? “What if that kid from The Sixth Sense grew up in the Old West and became a bounty hunter? With Gatling guns on his horse!” The best I can say is, it could’ve been worse. Hex’s already gone into the future and back a few times in his long comic book history, so I can live with his talking to dead people.
But by the time we’ve caught up with Jonah on the other side of the credits he’s mounted twin Gatling guns on his fucking horse. That I can’t abide. I don’t care if he or she descends from Bucephalus himself: no horse is existence is going to stand still for that kind of human bullshit. Where’s Hex getting the ammo for those things anyway? They’re certainly not belt-fed. But we’ve got to establish Jonah’s bad-ass cred early and often, so having him kill a clutch of corrupt lawmen with horse-mounted gats (which he never uses again) is the best this film can come up with.
In any case, President Grant orders Jonah tracked down and drafted because he is apparently the only one who can stop General Turnbull’s master plan. The General, like Jessie James before him, is a bit miffed at the way the Civil War turned out. He faked his own death in the late 1860s and now he’s back to derail America’s centennial celebration with some kind of superweapon.
Before we figure out what kind, let’s spend some time in bed with Megan Fox. She plays Lila, the film’s resident Hooker with a Heart of Gold. For Jonah. Everyone else gets a gun in the crotch. Even Jonah gets on her bad side once he mentions moving down south a ways to avoid the U.S. Marshals on his trail. Why, here they are right now, come to set him on Turnbull’s.
It’s not exactly the hardest trail to find. Turnbull’s already destroyed a train carrying plenty of civilians and a Big Freakin’ Gun that’s about twenty years ahead of its time. Turnbull’s civilian-killing and political extremism earns him the label “terrorista,” and right away I’m wondering, “Why?” Plenty of perfectly good, non-anachronistic monikers for his type of hold-over litter the later half of the nineteenth century. But this is, above all else, a very stupid film, feeling it must paint itself in moral black and white so as not to confuse its target audience. They need to have Jonah’s personal political convictions spelled out for them by a Token Black Dude (and John Henry Irons ancestor? Mayhap) named (since he makes weapons) Smith (Lance Reddick, whom you should know from either The Wire, Lost or both).
“You and I both know the only reason you fought for the South,” Smith says, “is you don’t like being told to do by the gover’ment. You ain’t never believe in Successionism, and you ain’t never believed in slavery, neither. So what’s the point in hatin’ the union so much?”
“All of ’em on both such are just a bunch of hypocrites as far as I’m concerned,” Hex replies. “Country can keep to its own business and I’ll keep to mine.” Because God forbid our heroes have the least bit of political or moral ambiguity. God forbid they be anything other than apolitical, middle-of-the-road assholes. God forbid they believe in something…like their country…even after it lost a war. Or harbor a political philosophy that’s not drawn from some jumped-up, grade-school Libertarian propaganda. All that might be completely alien to an unwashed movie audience, confusing their poor, widdle heads even more than this film’s ignorance of geography.
Here’s how this film yanked our chains: The Crank movies were wonderful, self-conscious celebrations of their genre: high octane, essentially-brainless action movies. So I rejoiced at the news Warner Brothers drafted Crank‘s makers, Mark Neveldine and Bryan Taylor, to doctor Jonah Hex‘s script. I expected Neveldine and Taylor to bring their trademark genre savvy to the Western. Because Jonah Hex is nothing if not a revisionist Western antihero, a product of the same comic book zeitgeist that created Wolverine, Ghost Rider and the Punisher. Jonah Hex, the film, could’ve been the next logical step forward after High Planes Drifter, Pale Rider, and (in back of them all) Shane. Except Neveldine/Taylor relegated themselves to the sub position in any Hollywood relationship (remaining screenwriters), letting the Big Chair pass to the visionary auteur behind Horton Hears a Who!
Besides, we’ve already had that film I described in the last paragraph and, depending on your proclivities, it was either called Unforgiven or The Quick and the Dead. Both were far, far, far better pictures than this thanks (in part) to their unity of vision. All hope for that died over two years ago when Neveldine and Taylor abandoned this project due to “creative differences“…that thing creative types cite when they don’t want to fuck over their futures in the Industry by discussing what went wrong.
Now we all know what went wrong. It’s all there on the screen. Idiotic continuity errors crop up throughout, signaling that the movie was workshopped to death by a studio desperate for another franchise-maker (just like all of Warner Brothers other superhero shows). No matter whose name appears in the credits, Jonah Hex plays like a laundry list of everything that’s ever pissed me off about Akiva Goldsman’s past movies: the shifts of tone (from straight Western to weird Western to Hollywood Blockbuster Action Western) fit to give you whiplash; the unnecessary Love Interest who serves only to get kidnapped (Fox), the disregard for laws of physics that’s almost Biblical…it’s all here. And it all sucks goats.
Take the Indian village that appears three-quarters of the way in because the film’s too stupid to figure out a better way to get Hex out of the corner its written him into (near-dead from bullet wounds gained infiltrating Trunbull’s secret base). Do I even need to point out that, by the 1870s, there were no Indian villages within half a continent of where this film takes place? I probably do, since the film’s so stupid it falls back on the Mystical Indian motif, complete with a trippy the-hero-recovers-from-his-wounds montage that I actually rather liked…if only because the sight of yellow-eyed Josh Brolin vomiting up a live bird is the one image from this pic that really stuck in my head.
Then there’s the dog Jonah rescues from a cage match a bit earlier. It follows him for the rest of the film, displaying powers of Offscreen Teleportation would be the envy of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, or any of the dipshits behind the Ghostface mask. Seriously, this mutt must cover miles in a single bound. It’s fun to pretend he’s Krypto the Super Dog, disguised as a mild-manner mangy cur Jonah barely acknowledges.
Much like Megan Fox (he said, hearing the groans of his audience at such a hamhanded and mean-spirited segue). I mean, what is the point of her presence? She’s the Love Interest, the Object of Jonah’s excuse for affection. So she exits to get huffy when he talks about “goin’,” disappears for a full hour of film, and gets kidnapped as soon as General Turnbull learns who “the gov’ment’s” set on him.
I take back what I said about the dog. Everyone in this film has powers of Offscreen Teleportation. How else could Turnbull’s head henchmen find Jonah’s Hooker with a Heart of Gold and get her back to the East Coast in time for a climactic battle that’s as short and limp as a midget in the presence of his naked grandmother?
It’s as if our director, Jimmy Hayward (our actual director – the escapee from Pixar), tossed the film to a ninja he hired once the four credited editors left over “creative differences.” The ninja tossed the film over his head and did that thing they do where they draw their swords and make wild, failing motions at something hovering just out of frame. The result fluttered to the floor. Hayward took one look at it, noticed Jonah Hex‘s mid-June release date fast approaching, and said “Fuck it. Call it good” How else can you explain the reappearance of our pre-credit prologue two-thirds of the way through, pulling double duty as a flashback? Making the prologue even more unnecessary than they always are.
At least there’s none of the Odious Comic Relief that so marred Wild Wild West. Like Jim West before him, Jonah Hex don’t wear no costumes. And unlike Jim West he has no effete, intellectual partner to force him into a dress. As if he could pull it off with that face. And gird your loins because here comes the inevitable, comic book fan’s gripe: Josh Brolin isn’t near ugly enough. Oh, I like him fine in the role, but his make-up job needs a serious “grisly” upgrade. Brolin wants to be Clint Eastwood so hard watching him try is almost cute. Like a high school Shakespeare production, Brolin’s ambitions win him a lot of coinage in my realm. He obviously took this seriously, and the film’s vastly improved for it…but, goddamnit, he can’t disappear into the role because, when all’s said and done, he looks too damn much like Josh Brolin doing a young-Clint Eastwood impression.
There’s a scene where Jonah Brolin digs up Jeb Turnbull, the General’s son (an uncredited Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to get some information. Jeb informs Jonah that, from the afterlife’s perspective, there’s not a whole hell of a lot of difference between Jonah and Papa Turnbull. This statement makes no sense in the context of the film (which goes out of its way to paint Jonah as a virtuous hero and slaps the T-word on Turnbull in its the first half hour) but it reveals what kind of picture this might’ve been in the hands of people who knew what the hell they were doing.
Both Turnbull and Hex are obsessive ideologues with no problem killing people to back up their belief systems. Hex murders in the name of negative liberty – “Country can keep to its own business and I’ll keep to mine.” He’s a bounty hunter, after all. His is the old cowboy freedom from things – like human relationships. Or complex facial expressions.
Turnbull murders people for A Cause. Like Wild Wild West‘s Arliss Loveless, Turnbull murders for something – the very definition of positive liberty. Sure, it’s the liberty to blow the recently re-United States back to the Stone Age, but at least that’s something, you know? A socio-political version of Jonah’s quest for Revenge. Sure, it’s the same story Wild Wild West tripped over, but it seems to be the only Weird Western plot Hollywood’s capable of producing. And there’s nothing wrong with it as a story. All it needs is a creative team that actually believes in telling things well…instead of creating an intravenous cash-injection machine.
Seems Malkovich learned a thing or three from Kenneth Branagh’s ham-heavy turn as the Villain, and Turnbull’s the most understated villain I’ve seen since…fuck me, I can’t even think of one. Too bad the film only allows him to run down the Movie Villain’s Checklist of Villainous Acts. Threatening minions? Check. Executing minions? Check. Threatening Love Interests? Duh. Wholesale Mass Murders? Darth Vader surely felt Turnbull through the Force, and in another universe he’s probably nodding in sage approval. Meanwhile, in this one, Turnbull’s Monologuing, since there’s no cliche too obvious for this here Jonah Hex film. Turnbull even refuses to kill Jonah when the time comes, preferring Our Hero watch him carpet bomb Washington D.C. with what at least one of my fellow critics has identified as Dragonballs. So Jonah’s chained down below, where he and Megan Fox (unguarded and unable to watch anything but each other) are sure to escape and cause havoc. Topping it all off, in place of a giant, mechanical spider, this film spends a whole hour building up Turnbull’s superweapon…and it turns out to be yet another proto-A-Bomb. Shiwan Khan would be pissed.
See, that’s Jonah Hex in a dragonball: a lot of ideas that were already moldy and old even before Wild Wild West ignored them in favor of putting Will Smith in a dress. Hex‘s few original ideas have nowhere to go and so, weighted down by the rest of this generic crap, they sink. I could think of several movies that would’ve been vastly improved by the inclusion of twin (semi-automatic, no less) pistols that shoot lit sticks dynamite. This isn’t one of them.
In fact, those pistols appear for all of one scene and never show up again (much like Jonah’s Horse Gats), despite how handy they might be when facing down (say) a boatload of militant ex-Confederates who’ve kidnapped your Object Love Interest. Those pistols could serve as metaphor for the film as a whole: a nice idea that takes its own sweet time going absolutely nowhere. Once again I’m forced to tell Akiva Goldsman, Legendary Films and Warner Brothers to go fuck themselves. You’re still doing it wrong, guys. Better learn quick, or Marvel’s going to keep kicking your asses.