Judge Dan Mancini prefers to call it the "War of Northern Aggression."
Our review of Jonah Hex, published October 18th, 2010, is also available.
Revenge gets ugly.
You can tell that comic books have arrived in the pop culture big leagues (and will probably soon fall out of favor) when major studios start producing big-budget feature adaptations of obscure characters like Jonah Hex.
Facts of the Case
A former Confederate soldier, Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men) turned on his own troops and was forced to kill his best friend, Jeb Turnbull (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, The Losers), when he refused an order to burn down a Union hospital. After the war, Jeb's father, General Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich, Con Air) murdered Hex's wife and son, scarred Hex's face, and left him for dead. Rescued by Crow Indians, Hex survived but exists in a realm between life and death, living in the corporeal world but able to communicate with the dead. Believing Quentin Turnbull dead, he wanders the West as a bounty hunter.
When Turnbull resurfaces with a deadly weapon capable of leveling an entire town within seconds, President Ulysses S. Grant (Aidan Quinn, Legends of the Fall) turns to the only man he believes can stop the embittered Confederate general: Jonah Hex. Forming an unlikely partnership with a cynical but good-hearted prostitute named Lilah (Megan Fox, Jennifer's Body), Hex goes on the hunt for the man who murdered his family.
Look at that Blu-ray cover up there. With the scarred half of Jonah Hex's face carefully draped in shadow, it hints of a studio marketing department deeply uncomfortable with its product. That cover is designed to hide the essence of Jonah Hex from anyone unfamiliar with the comic book. Nearly every moment of director Jimmy Hayward's (Horton Hears a Who!) film is in keeping with that cover, reinforcing the sense that Warner Bros was flummoxed by their comic book/western/supernatural property, and at least somewhat dumbfounded that someone within their ranks had green-lit a big-budget feature adaptation. One can easily imagine heated boardroom meetings about the wisdom of hiring a prestigious actor like Josh Brolin to play the title role, only to obscure half of his face in gruesome prosthetics sure to turn off the 18- to 34-year-old female demographic. Jonah Hex's 82 minutes are little more than a too-brief collection of stylish but narratively unsatisfying vignettes that stink of too many cooks in the kitchen—most of whom had little confidence and a surplus of disdain for both the character and his story. I'll waste no virtual ink in this review trashing Jimmy Hayward's direction, which is often playful and energetic. I have no clue about Hayward's original vision for Jonah Hex, but I doubt very much that it resembled what ended up onscreen, which is essentially a ridonkulous sister movie to Barry Sonnenfeld's Wild Wild West—minus the giant mechanical spider and hip-hop soundtrack by the Fresh Prince, but with the added bonus of hokey references to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. It is inarguable that Jonah Hex is a bad movie, but it's the type of bad movie that might have been good if not for the stubborn incompetence and willful neglect of a studio burdened by second thoughts.
Jonah Hex is an inelegant genre mash-up. Particularly problematic are its supernatural elements, which are incongruent and require far too much exposition to establish ground rules (the corpses with whom Hex communicates burn in sunlight, love dirt, constantly know the whereabouts of their living former friends, and other stuff that is convenient for plugging the movie's plot holes but doesn't make a lick of sense as a metaphysical construct). In his earliest comic book incarnations in the 1970s, Hex had no supernatural powers; he was merely a scarred gunfighter with questionable motives. His straddling the thin line between life and death, and the powers that come with it, were added to the character's mythology by writer Joe R. Lansdale (Bubba Ho-Tep) in the early '90s. The movie may have been better served by omitting the supernatural, not least because the suits at Warner Bros would likely have been more confident in a comic book movie that played comfortably within the conventions of westerns, without dabbling half-assed in Hellboy-style elements of the occult. Lansdale's spooky innovations were worthy additions to the comic book Jonah Hex, but they prove unwieldy in the movie, which is too concerned with quips about Megan Fox's curves to strike the proper creepy tone to support talking corpses and murders of crows.
Josh Brolin does an excellent job working through a heap of latex to bring much texture to what is essentially a one-dimensional character. His work is easy to underestimate. It deftly avoids rendering Hex as a self-conscious imitation of Clint Eastwood's iconic, tight-jawed Man with No Name anti-hero from Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns—a lazy choice it's easy to imagine most other lead actors would have made if given the role. Brolin plays Hex with gravel-voiced grit, but also with a weariness that is true to the character's tragic origin. Unfortunately, Brolin is mostly let down by the supporting performers. Megan Fox is awful as the requisite hooker with a heart of gold, playing Lilah's love of Hex as a simple fact without an ounce of emotional resonance. The metric ton of double entendres involving her pulchritude and her general lack of thespian skills, leave her presence smacking of stunt casting. And one must look all the way back to John Lithgow's turn in the 1993 Sly Stallone mountain climbing actioner Cliffhanger to find a villain who chews scenery more shamelessly than John Malkovich's drawling Quentin Turnbull. Turnbull is undoubtedly villainous, but Malkovich appears to be there to have a little fun and collect a paycheck. He doesn't take the role or the movie at all seriously. On the plus side, Michael Fassbender (300) proves adept at playing a sadistic, tattooed Irish douchebag in Turnbull's employ, and Arrested Development alum Will Arnett gives a fine, restrained performance, playing against type as a Union officer tasked by President Grant with acting as a liaison to Hex.
Like most modern would-be blockbusters, Jonah Hex is rife with stylized, hyper-vivid hues realized via the magic of digital color-timing. Skin tones are warm. Detail is razor sharp. Unfortunately, the 1080p/VC-1 transfer is riddled with all manner of digital artifacts and noise. Black crush is so prevalent that some of the nighttime sequences are visually incomprehensible. The presentation is 2.40:1, in keeping with the movie's theatrical presentation. Audio is a DTS-HD master audio 5.1 surround track that is mixed hot (I had to turn the volume down significantly from my usual preset for Blu-rays), but is otherwise unimaginative. Both the front and rear soundstages get a full workout, but there's not an ounce of subtlety to the mix—it simply tries to replace careful imaging and a delicate sense of ambient space with volume. Based on the audio/video presentation of Jonah Hex, I'd say Warner Bros cared as little about the Blu-ray as they did about the movie itself.
Supplemental content is extremely light. "The Inside Story of Jonah Hex" is a 10-minute promotional featurette that delves into the character's history as well as the making of the film. It's not bad as electronic press kits go. "The Weird Western Tales of Jonah Hex" is an in-feature picture-in-picture feature that combines cast and crew interviews with behind-the-scenes footage. It's run of the mill. The Blu-ray is also BD-Live enabled, allowing you to watch trailers for other Warner Bros releases.
A second disc contains the movie on DVD, as well as a downloadable digital copy.
Jonah Hex: lame movie; lame Blu-ray.
Guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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