Jonah Hex was reportedly the victim of severe studio interference, and the hallmarks are all over the final product for everyone to see – the runtime is a scant 70 minutes, the editing is choppy, the violence is neutered, and the narrative is often incoherent. In fact, this picture is paper-thin, with the plot stripped to its barest essentials and with characters that are as shallow as a puddle in the desert. Indeed, it’s doubtful that the theatrical cut is actually the vision that any of the makers had when the project first got underway. And if this does in fact represent the true vision of director Jimmy Hayward or the writers (Crankmasterminds Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor), what the fuck were they thinking? Especially from a tonal standpoint, Jonah Hex is a huge goddamn mess – it’s part spaghetti western, part supernatural tale, part black comedy, and part action film, yet it doesn’t work as any of them. What a tragic waste of time and talent.
Based on the DC Comics character created by John Albano and Tony Dezuniga, Jonah Hex concerns the titular bounty hunter played by Josh Brolin. During the Civil War, Hex turned on his psychotic superior Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich), and in retaliation Turnbull murdered Hex’s family and scarred his face. Due to the resuscitative efforts of the local Native Americans, Hex survived the attack, and was also gifted with the ability to speak with the dead. Fast forward a few years, and Jonah Hex is a notorious bounty hunter. President Grant (Quinn) calls Hex into military duty when it becomes clear that Quentin Turnbull is up to no good. See, Turnbull is assembling an anachronistic super-weapon capable of destroying America.
To be sure, this big screen Jonah Hex is blessed with solid production values – it has intricate costumes, lavish art direction, inspired digital effects and very impressive make-up. With this in mind, and with reliable Josh Brolin in the lead, Jonah Hex should have been one hell of a movie, but instead it’s one hell of a mess. Notorious reshoots aside, the film clearly had a missile taken to it in the editing room, resulting in a movie that’s the epitome of barebones. In order for a viewer to become invested in Jonah’s quest to kill Turnbull, it’s imperative for the film to properly convey what he has lost. Even exploitation movies like Death Sentenceand Death Wish effectively managed to do this. Alas, in this movie, Jonah is never seen with his family before they’re killed – in fact, there’s only one very brief shot of them prior to their demise. Without caring about the proceedings on a personal level, the film is reduced to an empty technical exercise which even underwhelms in the action department.
Worse, the entire mythology behind the character of Jonah Hex was lost amidst the careless, hasty cutting. Jonah’s supernatural power is one of the few things that distinguishes him from similar vigilantes, but alas the “one foot on earth, the other foot in hell” aspect of his story is tragically half-baked. There’s also very little consistency regarding what Hex can and can’t do. Towards the beginning of the film, he dodges bullets and moves with superhuman speed. Later, he has trouble fist-fighting just one guy. Additionally, Hex uses high tech weapons just once but never bothers to use them again. And if the Native Americans can heal bullet wounds, why can’t they heal Jonah’s face as well? On top of this, there are cutaways during a battle sequence to an otherworldly brawl between Hex and Turnbull that’s unnecessary and confusing. The brawl is juxtaposed with the “real world” battle that we’re also supposed to be engaged in, but you end up caring about neither struggle.
It was perhaps an ill-conceived idea to let Jimmy Hayward – the director ofHorton Hears a Who – direct this gruff comic book adaptation. Hayward was clearly out of his element here, though this could be more of a reflection of the studio interference which mangled the narrative past the point of recognition. The editing is noticeably choppy, with awkward cutaways to censor the violence. Clearly, Jonah Hex was written and filmed with an R rating in mind, but the studio stepped in to sanitise the gruesome killings beyond what’s reasonable in order to obtain a PG-13 rating. Thus, people are killed, but these deaths lack viscera. And despite the protagonist being a badass, Hex never utters any profanities. Worse, one sequence depicts Jonah at some sort of pro wrestling event where cowboys are watching two beastly humans fighting in a pit. Jonah is disarmed and thrown into the pit with the monsters, but, instead of a brutal fight scene, the film immediately cuts to a sequence of Jonah leaving the arena after having beaten the fighters off-screen. A PG-13 rating can work, but it’s a problem when the film is visibly pulling punches. If a movie is about a stone-cold killer, shouldn’t it be logical for us to see his work?
To his credit, Josh Brolin is great as Jonah Hex, and John Malkovich did a fine job as the villain. Those two clearly tried, but their performances were unable to improve the terrible material. Meanwhile, Megan Fox was merely on hand to provide eye candy. She’s easy on the eyes, but Fox is an awful actress. She has absolutely no character to speak of, and her screen-time is so limited that it would not have been hard to eliminate her from the film. In fact, if she was entirely excised it would not have negatively affected the movie in any way. The rest of the film’s notable supporting players – Aidan Quinn, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Michael Fassbender, Lance Reddick, Will Arnett, Wes Bentley and other familiar faces – were all utterly wasted as well.
It would be hard to fault the concept behind Jonah Hex (the notion of a badass 19th Century vigilante kicking ass is rife with potential), but this film was executed appallingly. A handful of scenes are admittedly enjoyable, but, taken as a whole, the film does not work. There are too many holes, too many cutaways, too much risible dialogue, too many loose ends, too many undeveloped elements, and far too much untapped potential.