(by Dustin Putman
There is no doubt that a whole lot of critics—and probably some comic book fans—are destined to call "Jonah Hex" one of the worst films of the year. Indeed, watching the PG-13-rated, 80-minute finished product (actually 70 minutes sans end credits), it is impossible to believe that what has shown up on the screen is actually the initial vision anyone had when this project got underway and the actors signed on. The picture is paper-thin, the plot stripped to its barest essentials and the characters about as deep as a puddle after a light spring shower. The editing is noticeably choppy, too, with each shot seeming to last a couple seconds shorter than it should and most of the violence blatantly cut down or occurring off-camera. While a far better movie clearly could have been made from this material, the current version's brevity turns out to be one of its strongest suits. The pacing is lightning-quick and the storytelling, while very simplistic, is refreshingly no-nonsense and to-the-point, not bogged down like so many summer action films are with lots of extraneous scenes and bloated two-hour-plus running times. "Jonah Hex" gets in, does its business, and gets out as fast as it can. It's as if studio Warner Bros. Pictures, director Jimmy Hayward (2008's "Horton Hears a Who!"), and screenwriting partners Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (2009's "Gamer") know what they've made isn't very good and want to spare paying audiences with the least amount of pain possible. Article continues below
"War and me took to each other real well," Civil War soldier Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) narrates in the opening prologue. It turns out to just be a mirage, however, the good he thought he was doing leading him to nothing but loss and heartache. When Confederate terrorist Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) brutally kills Jonah's family and brands him with a scar across the side of his face, an enraged Jonah vows to seek vengeance until he learns of Turnbull's own death. Instead, he turns to bounty hunting, punishing the guilty as he sees fit. Then the revelation comes, brought to Jonah by none other than President Grant (Aidan Quinn): Turnbull is still very much alive and on the loose, and he wants to induct Jonah back into the military to lead the fight in stopping him from wreaking potentially cataclysmic havoc on American soil.
Based on the DC Comics character created by John Albano and Tony Dezuniga, "Jonah Hex" features a generous budget and solid production values—lavish art direction, intricate costumes, impressive make-up, and inspired visual effects work. The guitar riff that plays over the opening studio logos is a neat little touch, and so is the use of animation, made to look like comic book art, in the opening pre-titles segment. Locations and images, like the sight of a graveyard laid out before an imposing old southern mausoleum, are indelible. Josh Brolin (2007's "No Country for Old Men"), as rough-and-tumble vigilante Jonah Hex, and John Malkovich (2008's "Burn After Reading"), as crazed archenemy Quentin Turnbull, are superb actors capable of bringing a little something extra to the roles they play. All the elements of a solid cinematic adaptation appear to be in place, but somewhere along the way too many cooks got in the kitchen and stripped the beating heart out of the equation.
The first mistake is in the miscalculated set-up of the premise. In order for the viewer to become emotionally invested in Jonah's quest to kill Turnbull, it is imperative that one gets the sense of what he lost. Alas, Jonah is never seen with his family before tragedy strikes, and they are only ever glimpsed in long shots right before they are set ablaze. His dearly departed, then, never grow beyond enigmas. Without caring on a personal level about what is happening on the screen—Jonah's relationship with tough-talking, forlorn prostitute Lilah (Megan Fox) also remains frustratingly unformed, why they share a connection to each other never explained—the film becomes a technical exercise that unobtrusively blends the western genre with sci-fi and supernatural elements. Like something out of TV's sadly canceled "Pushing Daisies," Jonah gains the power to resurrect the dead long enough to get answers out of them about Turnbull's whereabouts and dastardly plan. Just don't expect to receive any coherent explanation for why Jonah can suddenly do this, or how Turnbull has created a super weapon powerful enough to destroy a whole city in one blast. Director Jimmy Hayward pays no attention to the hows and whys of his story and concentrates simply on Jonah's ultimate goal in stopping Turnbull and making him pay.
Arriving by the one-hour mark, the climax finds Turnbull and his henchmen, along with a kidnapped Lilah and an in-pursuit Jonah, on a ship floating off the coast of Independence Harbor, Virginia. As a Fourth of July celebration gets underway at the steps of the Capitol Building and the still-in-construction Washington Monument stands tall in the foreground, Turnbull plans to obliterate Washington, D.C. "On the Fourth of July, the United States of America will know hell!" Turnbull says. This line should be showing up in all the trailers and promotional materials for "Jonah Hex"—audiences who know the film revolves around the patriotic holiday might be more interested in seeing it—but no matter. The third act is fairly exciting, visually pleasing, and, like the rest of the film, gets the job done without drawing things out.
"Jonah Hex" isn't a good film, but there's a subtle charm about it. It's slapdash, underwritten, and totally empty from a dramatic standpoint. For their efforts, Josh Brolin and John Malkovich are rewarded only by the sizable paychecks they probably received. As for Megan Fox (2009's "Jennifer's Body"), her acting capabilities are still up in the air; as Lilah, she has very little to do but look sexy while wearing a corset and holding a gun. Over and out with a minimum of fuss, the picture is at least diverting and doesn't wear out its welcome. As far as recent action flicks go, it's certainly livelier, more fun and less pretentious than the insufferable "The A-Team," the stodgy "Robin Hood," and the joyless "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." What one takes away from the experience of watching "Jonah Hex" is solely aesthetic, though; it looks and sounds great, even if there's nothing at all in its pretty little head.