Review - Jonah Hex

Here is the Hidden S' blurb for Jonah Hex: "Jonah Hex is the Showgirls of Comic Book Movies"-Or, how about "Jonah Hex makes Iron Man 2 seem like Citizen Kane."

Time was that Hollywood churned out great westerns (great, not merely good) with a kind of tedious regularity. Well known films like The Searchers, Shane, My Darling Clementine and Stagecoach are well known to film fans but lesser known films like Pursued, Johnny Guitar, Hondo and the Tall T showcased the strength and durability of this venerable genre through much of Hollywood's so-called Golden Age.

In the last 40 years? Hardly anything. Films like The Outlaw Jesse Wales (1976), Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and Unforgiven (1992) rate as classics, or at least near classics, but that's about it. This highlights another aspect of the decline of the western: time was that every actor felt the call to be in a western. Everyone knows John Wayne and Gary Cooper but there was also Randolph Scott, Jimmy Stewart and other actors who were more associated with film noir work, like Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum, who dabbled in westerns. Since then? Well, Eastwood is the only actor who the public can envision in a western and, more importantly, the only actor that they are willing to pay to see in a western. (I am not counting Brokeback Mountain, by the way, which was not a western in my mind).

Now in 2010 we find ourselves with the Hollywood adaptation of the comic Jonah Hex. Hex is of course the major western themed superhero character in comics. Hex has been around almost 40 years and has always had a strong cult following. His scarred face, Confederate uniform and bitter backstory underlined his anti-hero status in a very visual and very obvious way.

So, what of this film? To paraphrase the Ed Grimley character on the old Saturday Night Live, it's weird how bad it is. The trailer was not that great, but trailers can be criminally unreliable (The Fantastic Four films had great trailers and then...) so I had some hope that this was merely the case. I bolstered my hopes knowing that Hex was being played by a first rate actor, Josh Brolin, who typically picks first rate projects like Milk and No Country for Old Men. I also love John Malkovich, who is often great (although less picky in his selection of roles), and the actor Michael Fassbender has made good impressions in small parts (Inglorious Basterds) and in some high end projects such as McQueen.

What then went wrong? Pretty much everything, but let me focus on a couple of things. One is the plot which concerns (as best I can figure) a plot to attack Washington (on the eve of the county's 1876 Centenial) with a superweapon by Hex' uber-nemesis (a super slumming John Malkovich) and Hex naturally is the only person who can stop him. Even this simple setup is problematic; the writers don't seem to know what Hex actually is: an existential drifter, a wisecracking, post-modern gunslinger, a supernatural agent or a super agent with futuristic weapons strapped to his saddle.

This kind of schizophrenia in a character can be attractive to actors as it can disguise a poorly written role as "multi-dimensional." I am guessing this might have been what attracted the usually reliable Brolin to the role. Other aspects of the film that don't work seem to be the result of shifting directors and a rushed, snakebit production which apparently was like recycled imagery, make it up as you go plot points and sequences that were probably more interesting in theory than execution (the animated backstory near the beginning of the film).

The plot also seems to crib heavily from two sources: The Eastwood Westerns (especially the revenge fantasy Outlaw Jose Wales) and the Will Smith Wild Wild West film from about 10 years ago (both Hex and WWW have President Grant in a cameo role). This dynamic is problematic on many levels as it raises hackles for mining good material to churn out bad (the Eastwood films) and recycles bad material that audiences had mercifully forgotten (WWW). Movie audiences typically carry around memories and they are often deployed in the move going experience. In this case, these memories merely compound the unsavory experience of this film.

So to paraphrase President Obama, "whose ass needs kicking here?" Brolin gets a pass since he was not miscast (not perfectly cast either; Sean Penn would have been a better pick and in some ways Mickey Rourke is ideal) but he was merely unlucky here (he does join a dubious group of actors like Charlize "Aeon Flux" Theron and Halle "Catwoman" Berry who cashed in their Oscar credentials to get saddled with bad superhero films). Malkovich is beyond blame at this point in his career, as he has turned into a kind of post-modern Vincent Price whose florid villainy is always in demand and nobody really expects him to put people in seats (see Ben Kingsley in the Prince of Persia); Fassbender has banked enough good work to dodge the bullet here (and he is nothing more than support here anyway).

I am betting the person who will take the hit here is Ms. Megan Fox (and make no mistake someone will take the hit). This year has been a tough one for Ms. Fox. what with the underwhelming response to the hyped Jennifer's Body and her losing the female lead in Transformers 3 (after reportedly comparing Michael Bay to Der Fuher). I get the sense that the public is tiring of Ms. Fox' print/PR shenanigans, like spinning tales of stalking strippers and basically behaving like a neolithic version of Angelina Jolie. At best, Ms. Fox' impressive torso has been overexposed to a near Lohan-esque level.

Is this fair? Of course not! Ms. Fox is only in the film for a few minutes and she does look better in her 19th century harlot attire than the other actors look in their attire. Why then will she get the blame here? The incorrect and cynical answer is that she is a woman. The true answer is that the production put a lot of faith in Ms. Fox and made her a large part of the film's publicity (despite the fact her's is mostly an extended cameo). This makes sense in the scheme of things since the target audience for this kind of film is a young male who is really, really interested in having Megan Fox as their girlfriend and laughing at gilded butterflies together. To use the Lohan comparison there may be too much free Megan Fox (Maxim, GQ, tabloid shows) to entice fanboys to get out of the house and pay for it.

I try not to get into personal commentary on this site very much since I hate it when journalists betray too much of their own personal history and ruin the lost art of journalism but here goes. I grew up on a ranch and my dad was an attorney but he often introduced himself as a "rancher" when we traveled. This was the absolute truth since we had at any one time 4 or 5 horses on our property and he bred horses and invested in the occasional race horse. However, he got up and went to work as an attorney. My dad took being a horseman completely seriously; he was no dilettante and many times he came home from court to work in the stables, but he was more accurately a hobbyist when it came to horses. Being an attorney helped keep his interest in horses afloat, not the other way around. Not surprisingly, this love of horses extended to love of all things western; film, Zane Grey books, TV shows, western clothing, etc. etc.

The other thing worth mentioning is that there was for many years on my mom's side of the family a rumor that she was descended from the McCandless gang (my grandmother's maiden name was McCandless). Who was the McCandless gang you might ask? Well, western lore has it that Wild Bill Hickcock wiped them out, possibly as a result of their criminal activity but probably just because they crossed paths with the lethal western folk hero.

This kind of cross pollination makes for potent stuff in a young kid and as a result I have always been infatuated with the west in a way that my dad was. Which brings us to this-I am very disappointed that this film will be such a failure as an entertainment and likely as a moneymaker since I was looking forward to seeing a great western with a character that always seemed pretty cool in my young mind. The almost certain failure of this film may stall any kind of western in the near future, especially a comic themed western (most regrettably it will probably at least delay a rumored remake of the Lone Ranger).

Finally, what does this mean for DC comic adaptations in Hollywood? It is not devastating, but it is problematic and definitely a setback. DC's choices for film in the last decade have been odd with stuff like V For Vendetta, Watchmen, Constantine and now Jonah Hex getting to the theater before Aquaman, Green Arrow, The Flash and Green Lantern (I am not counting Batman and Superman). These efforts have been admirable but mild commercial success does not a franchise make. As for the near future Green Lantern is well underway and there are signs that the Flash might be gearing up shortly so these projects are basically too far along to re-think at this point. However, forget, for the time being any comic adaptations of Vertigo style stuff like Doom Patrol, Haunted Tank or Tom Strong. Expect a quick return to the meat and potatoes of the DC universe with amped up plans and rumors regarding the third Chris Nolan Batman and a re-boot of Superman.(Wouldn't Megan Fox make a great Lois Lane???)