Movie Review: JONAH HEX Leaves Scar on Comic Book Movies

Movie Review: JONAH HEX

[editor's note: this review was originally credited to Michael Doran. The correct author of the piece is Michael Avila.]

Certain cinematic signs are dead giveaways that a movie is bad. Not bad meaning "badass" like the title character that "inspired" the film - bad meaning "terrible."

Excessive voiceover and expository dialogue, ham-fisted acting, nonsensical plot twists…all evidence of a disaster in the making. Cinematic red flags are there for a reason, to warn you of impending awfulness. To put it another way:

You know a movie is in deep trouble when the leading man coughs up a crow.

“Jonah Hex,” the latest comic-to-cinema transfer is more inept than even the most pessimistic moviegoer could possibly imagine. It’s loaded with laughable dialogue, an asinine plot and a tone that almost defies description. It has the depth of an episode from an old TV western, but without the charm and character the Cartwrights or the Barkley boys brought to the table.

The first signs of trouble are spotted at the beginning during a flashback narrated by Hex (Josh Brolin) that details his time fighting for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. We meet his enemy Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who murders Hex’s family right in front of Hex. This act figuratively and literally scars Hex for life, as Turnbull permanently disfigures him.

Years later, Hex has transformed himself into a fearsome bounty hunter with a rep that extends across the country and all the way to Hades’ home turf. You see, the Jonah Hex in this film talks to dead people. How? Because magical Indians gave him the power to do so. Why? Because he’s kind of not alive, yet not quite dead. Wha-at?!

That’s about all the explanation the film gives for Hex’s ridiculous abilities. Director Jimmy Hayward, an animation veteran who directed “Horton Hears a Who!”, shows no skill at handling real actors or ambitious set pieces. The action is clumsy and boring.

Remember when Malkovich made Cyrus the Virus the best thing about “Con Air?” Here, he turns in the most disinterested performance of his career as Turnbull, a corrupt Confederate soldier who turns into America’s first terrorist. He’s gotten his hands on a super weapon, ‘a nation killer,’ and he aims to use it on Washington, D.C. during the country’s centennial celebration. Aiden Quinn, portraying President Grant, drew the short straw in the dialogue room and is forced to spit out dreck such as “the fate of the nation may very well rest with Jonah Hex.”

Quinn isn’t the only quality actor loitering in the movie. Michael Fassbender (“Inglorious Basterds”), the guy reportedly set to play a young Magneto in “X-Men: First Class,” seemed like he wandered onto the set from another production. He plays Turnbull’s psychopath Irish lieutenant Burke like a cross between Dieter Dengler and the Lucky Charms leprechaun.

Tom Wopat appears as the operator of an Old West fight club, and Michael Shannon pops in for a so-quick-you’ll-probably-miss-it spot. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“Watchmen,” “The Losers”) who’s apparently a DC Entertainment contract player now, shows up in his third film based on a DC comic. The best cameo is Will Arnett, who is unintentionally hilarious as an Army officer.

Every time Arnett appeared onscreen, the crowd at the screening I attended exploded in laughter I haven’t heard in a theater since “The Hangover,” which was actually going for laughs.

As for Megan Fox, she’s onscreen as Hex’s hooker squeeze Lilah for 10 minutes at the most, mostly to pout her lips and show off the Victoria’s Secret Old West collection.

No one can fault Josh Brolin for trying to parlay his recent string of top-notch roles in “No Country for Old Men,” “W” and “Milk” into blockbuster leading-man work, but “Jonah Hex” will probably put an end to that dream. In fairness to Brolin, how effective can an actor be as a legendary bounty hunter, when the script saddles him with the funniest onscreen drinking problem since “Airplane’s” Ted Stryker’s?

Brolin has stated in pre-release interviews the filmmakers were going for a campy tone. The problem is that true camp, the kind that sparks a playful affection in fans, is achieved incidentally. When you set out to do a campy movie, it comes off as thumbing your nose at the subject matter and the audience.

The lack of respect for the source material is glaring. Not that a movie based on a comic book needs to be overbearingly faithful; But if you’re not going to try to at least maintain the spirit of the original work, why bother? No one who has read “Jonah Hex” comics, be it the original John Albano/Tony DeZuniga issues or the more recent, hardboiled tales from Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, will recognize that Hex here.

This isn’t a Western. There are thugs with full-body tattoos, weapons that seem lifted from a third-rate steam punk novel and zero atmosphere. The fact that the film’s violence was sanitized to score a PG-13 rating only makes things worse.

Incidentally, Akiva Goldsman is one of the film’s producers. Which means the same guy who helped carpet bomb the first Batman franchise just cut the theatrical legs out from under another DC character.

One bit of good news? The movie is astonishingly short, barely 70 minutes and that’s including an extended animated transition sequence at the beginning, several flashbacks and eight minutes of credits.

Remember all those ambitious plans DC and Marvel’s film crews had to use their massive character libraries as movie R&D? After sub par returns for “Kick-Ass,” “The Losers” (two movies that deserved better box-office) and with “Jonah Hex” a near-certain bomb, fans may want to dial down those dreams of an Ant-Man or Booster Gold movie.

When the bell finally tolls in Hollywood for films based on B-list comic book characters – and you can bet Quasimodo is warming up in the bell tower -- you might be able to blame “Jonah Hex” for being the tipping point.

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