Weird Westerns: Jonah Hex (2010)


The original Weird Western cowboy, a horrifically scarred comic book bounty hunter, gets a big screen treatment and a terrific actor to play him in the person of the Josh Brolin. It's too bad nothing else in the film does the character justice.

By Max Sparber

Jonah Hex deserved better. Not the movie, but the character, as the horrifically scarred bounty hunter is the original Weird Western, having appeared in DC Comics "Weird Western Tales." He remains one of the few popular Western comic heroes, regularly making appearances despite the genre's steep decline.

He's played by Josh Brolin here, and Brolin is the best thing about the film. Brolin is a very fine actor (and the son of "Westworld" star James Brolin), and he's adept at the sort of grizzled, taciturn masculinity that plays well in Westerns, which is likely why the Coen Brothers cast him both in "No Country for Old Men" and "True Grit."

He's a fine Hex, brooding and deeply pained, and also belongs in a better movie. "Jonah Hex" was scripted by Neveldine/Taylor, the directorial team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who were responsible for the enjoyably beserk "Crank" films, but their talents weren't a good match for this. They are quite skilled at taking cliches and amping them up, making them garish and absurd, and then putting them onscreen with a directorial style that verges on hysteria.

But this film was produced by the terminally bland Akiva Goldsman and directed by Jimmy Hayward, whose background is in animating children's films. It was also made at a time when studios weren't willing to back expensive tentpole movies with R ratings. But a Neveldine/Taylor script without their excesses is just a series of cliches. As a result, we end up with a "Jonah Hex" that has almost an identical plot as "Wild Wild West," in which a deranged Confederate General gets access to a steampunk weapon and wants to use it to destroy the United States, represented by General Ulysses S. Grant.

The general in this instance is played by John Malkovich, hinting at camp sensibilities that better directors encourage. It's impossible to take him seriously as a threat here, so the filmmakers also give us Michael Fassbender with facial tattoos and a bowler hat, essentially playing Starfleet Cadet Finnegan, the cocksure pugilist that Kirk beats to death in the "Shore Leave" episode of "Star Trek."

Inexplicably, they have got hold of an atomic bomb. There is an attempted explanation, based on the fact that the inventor of the cotton gin, Eli Whitney, later became an arms manufacturer, and I guess anyone capable of inventing a machine that removes seeds from cotton must also be able to build an atomic bomb in the late 1800s.

It's not the only unlikely element in the film. Jonah Hex has an abbreviated backstory that nonetheless draws from his comic book bio, including his having fought for the Confederacy but rejected it when he became disgusted with slavery, him having turned in his fellow Johnny Rebs, and him having a Native American wife who meets a tragic end.

But it also gives him magic powers — specifically, by touching the dead, he is able to briefly bring them back to life and ask them questions. This also has an explanation that is mostly handwaving: He nearly died, and Indians brought him back, and apparently this is something that can happen in those circumstances. Midway through the film he is nearly killed, and Indians show up again and fix him. Either Hex is just very lucky to run across these Indians, or we must assume they are always just offscreen, waiting for him to get injured so they can smudge some sage and rub leaves on him to bring him back to life.

Like "Wild Wild West," this is a Western set in the shadow of the Civil War, but, strangely, "Wild Wild West" handles the topic better, which is a weird thing to find myself writing, as "Wild Wild West" does the subject very poorly. Nonetheless, "West" has Will Smith as an ex-slave, and so puts the Black experience of the Civil War front and center.

"Jonah Hex" barely addresses it, at most briefly presenting us with the generally terrific Lance Reddick as a weapon's manufacturer who has good feelings about post-slavery America. This is a film that touches on the Civil War but barely acknowledges that it was a war to preserve white supremacy, and that Hex, by having participated in it as a Confederate, cannot simply wash himself of the stain of it by having decided it was a bad idea and walked away.

The film is so unconcerned with the subject of slavery that they even invent an additional backstory for Hex: He turned in his compatriots because Malkovich had ordered a hospital burned. It's as though the filmmakers didn't think audiences would be sympathetic to Hex simply deciding a racist system that turns humans in chattel was terrible, and so had to threaten white patients to get us on Hex's side.

Malkovich himself is simply after revenge, and his only comments on the whole subject suggest that he feels like the war was fought over the South's desire to secede, rather than their succession being based on their desire to preserve slavery. So it's a strangely apolitical film, which is not surprising from a film that is so deliberately bland.

I probably should mention that Megan Fox is in the film as a frontier prostitute, but she's barely in it, her characterization limited to "scrappy." She gets to pick up two guns and shoot them at one point, which, I suppose, is more than she might have done, but considerably less interesting than the comic book character she is based on, who is a scarred and half-blind bounty hunter, a female version — and equal to — Hex.

The film does have a fun scene at the start of the film, in which Hex delivers several bounties to a frontier town that literally looks like it was just plopped down in the desert. The town leaders double-cross Hex, and so he reveals that he has two gatling guns strapped to his horse and mows them down. It's ridiculous but at least entertaining, while the rest of the film only offers ridiculousness.


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