Le Cinema de WTF: Jonah Hex

Have you ever watched a movie that was so strange, so bizarre, so outlandish that when it was over, you were left scratching your head and wondering if you actually saw what you think you just saw, or if it was all some kind of hallucination? I know I have. That is what I am going to explore here. These are the films that leave you puzzled, confused, and wondering what in the bloody hell you just watched. Welcome, my friends, to Le Cinema de WTF.

Today, it’s “Jonah Hex,” the widely-panned 2010 DC Comics movie starring Josh Brolin as the titular scarred bounty hunter. Jonah Hex is a character who’s been around for a while, but I honestly don’t know a whole lot about him. Aside from the fact that he’s got some gnarly facial scarring and fought for the South in the Civil War, I’ve pretty much got nothing on the character. I remember he showed up in an episode of “Batman: The Animated Series,” and to his credit he did kick some serious ass.

One would think that watching a movie about him would maybe help fill in some of the blanks, but alas, such is not the case with this film. Warning sign number one: the movie is only 82 minutes long. Right off the bat you know there’s not going to be much in the way of plot or character development when the movie is that far short of the 90-minute mark. Especially when you consider that the actual movie is more like 71 minutes long, since the last eleven or twelve minutes of the running time are credits.

You know you’re in trouble when the screenwriters couldn’t even think of enough story to keep the movie going for an hour and a half, and the resulting 71 minutes of actual film still somehow manages to feel padded. It’s also somewhat telling that Jonah Hex has no superpowers in the comics. He’s just really good at hunting down bad guys, kind of like a Wild West version of the Punisher. But in the movie version, he can bring dead people back to life by touching them, and they stay alive as long as he touches them, only to resume being dead as soon as he lets go. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s only ever really used when Hex needs to find out where the bad guys are.

Said bad guys are led by Quentin Turnbull, played by John Malkovich. You’d think an actor as off-the-wall as Malkovich would enjoy playing a villain, but he mostly just looks bored. I get the impression he really only did it for the paycheck, or maybe so that his kids would get to see him as the villain in a comic-book movie.

Anyway, Turnbull is the villain, and he hates Jonah Hex for disobeying one of his orders to burn down a hospital during the War, an action which forced Hex to kill Turnbull’s son, who was also his best friend. As revenge for this, Turnbull ties up Hex and forces him to watch as his wife and son are burned alive in their home. He then brands Hex’s face with the initials “QT,” and leaves him to die. He’s found a few days later by Indians who bring him back to life with their mystical powers, since everyone knows that Indians have mystical powers. Apparently they weren’t able to bring all of him quite back from the dead, which serves as a half-assed explanation for the whole corpse-talking thing.

There’s also the obligatory love interest in the form of a prostitute named Lilah, played by Megan Fox. I’m not gonna lie, she looks good in a corset, but her Southern accent is terrible and she too mostly sounds bored. Why she has a thing for Jonah Hex is never really explained. I guess because the movie needed a love interest. It’s not like she even gets to do much, she has maybe 15 minutes of screen time, though I think that might be being a bit too generous. Her character serves little purpose, aside from looking nice and getting captured later in the movie.

I’ve gotta say, I feel sorry for Josh Brolin. The guy’s a darn good actor, and he’s got a face built for westerns (watch “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men” to see what I mean). His makeup in this movie is impressive, it looks appropriately and realistically nasty. The problem with it is that it robs him of most of his not-inconsiderable ability to actually act. It’s pretty hard to emote worth a damn when half your face is immobilized.

You can tell that Brolin tries, though. There’s one scene in particular where he’s talking to Turnbull’s temporarily-resurrected son, and you think you can maybe see a tear in Brolin’s eye, and you think his lip might even be quivering a bit, were it still capable of doing so. As a result, his performance is also somewhat joyless, though like I said I really can’t find it in me to blame him for that. The poor man does what he can with what he has, which as it turns out, really isn’t very much.

By far the most entertaining performance in the movie is given by the always-awesome Michael Fassbender, as the psychotic, heavily-tattooed Irish henchman named Burke. His cackling, grinning madman is great fun to watch, and Fassbender certainly seems to be enjoying himself, unlike pretty much everyone else in the movie. It really makes you think that pretty much every movie could be improved with a dose of Fassbender. (Imagine Fassbender as Anakin Skywalker, for instance… now that would have been something.)

Anyway, Turnbull’s endgame is to assemble what the movie calls a “nation-killer” weapon, or something to that effect. There’s some nonsense about how Eli Whitney invented the thing, but as with pretty much everything else in the movie it’s not terribly important. The weapon itself is actually pretty cool. The best way I can think to describe it is that it shoots a whole bunch of shells into an area, which don’t explode until a trigger shell is launched. So the idea is that if you shoot a 30 or 40 shells into a densely-populated area, say, Washington, D.C., then detonate them all at once, you could do some serious damage. It’s Turnbull’s intention to use this weapon during the July 4th centenary celebration in D.C. And of course, ONLY ONE MAN can stop him.

That’s pretty much all there is plotwise. What’s weird is how convoluted all of this feels. Like Cowboys and Aliens, the basic outline is pretty simple but it still seems to take longer than it really should to develop. This is even weirder in Jonah Hex, since it’s only 82 minutes long. How can a movie that’s not even 90 minutes long manage to feel convoluted? I don’t know, but this one manages it somehow.

It was directed by a guy named Jimmy Hayward, who worked as an animator at Pixar and whose only other directing credit is the recent animated version of the Dr. Seuss story “Horton Hears a Who!” Why he was chosen to direct a comic-book action movie about a scarred Wild West bounty hunter is a mystery that may never be solved.

There are so many details in this movie that just seem throwaway, that they’re there for no other reason than just to be there. If that sounds stupid, it’s because it is. In one scene, Hex uses a pair of Gatling guns improbably mounted to the saddle of his horse to kill a bunch of dudes. He never uses them again. Later he uses weapons that fire some sort of explosive crossbow bolt. He never uses them again. His relationship with Lilah is never explained. His ability to talk to dead folks is only ever used when he needs to find out where the bad guys are. President Grant shows up for no real reason. Hex gets pointlessly revived by Indians for a second time, again for no real reason (those Indians must be getting tired of reviving his ass by now). There’s a scene where a guy goes flying ten feet and smashes through a window after being shot with a pistol.

Most puzzling of all, though, has to be the final battle. While Hex and Turnbull are fighting on the boat with the nation-killer weapon, their fight is intercut with some kind of other fight between the two of them, which takes place on some sort red sand with red sky in the background. That’s really the best way I can think to describe it, and trust me, it doesn’t make any more sense in the actual movie. What the hell is the point of this? Is it supposed to be some sort of spiritual battle? My best guess is that it’s leftover from an earlier version of the script, and they just stuck it in at the end to pad the running time, since we all know that a 79-minute running time is HUGELY different from 82 minutes.

It’s a shame too, since there really is a lot of wasted potential here. There are some solid action scenes, and even touches of humor. When a bunch of Union soldiers barge in on Hex and Lilah and Brolin growls, “Christ, woman, how many men are you seein’ today?” you see a brief flash of What Might Have Been. Alas, it all ends up being in the service of a sporadically-entertaining lost cause. WTF rating: 8.5/10.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.


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