Jonah Hex, the movie, opens with a flurry of visual storytelling—marked more, and tellingly so, by wide vistas and lap dissolves than the usual Cuisinart-a-thon cutting-- that initiates you into the foundation of the movie’s central revenge scenario in such a brisk and tidy manner that at first you might feel as though you missed something. “War and me got along real well,” says Hex, the titular protagonist (Josh Brolin), a Confederate soldier who tells us further in his opening narration that he was always motivated to fight because he always did so believing it was the right thing to do. But after resisting the implementation of a bit of terrorism ordered by the vicious general Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), whose son is both his best friend and fellow soldier, Hex betrays his regiment to a Yankee outfit, which allows him to avoid execution. The general’s son is not so lucky, and after escaping a similar fate himself General Turnbull arranges for the crucifixion of his ex-soldier, forcing Hex to watch his own son and wife die. Turnbull tops off the atrocity by branding Hex with a “QT” on his face to remind him of the general’s wrath. (Hex’s signature disfigurement, a massively scarred cheek and a gnarled strip of flesh which bridges his upper and lower lip, is a gift Hex gives himself, the result of an attempt to unload the brand with the edge of a white-hot hatchet blade. It’s a look that cements his somewhat demonic countenance, but it also makes downing a shot of rye a necessarily more measured and difficult act.)
All this happens, with the help of montage and some visual suggestion, in the first five minutes of the movie. Soon Hex is off on his mission of revenge, hunting down Turnbull and his band of raiders, who have plans even more grand and dastardly than those of real-life Confederate raider William Quantrill, whose notorious image Turnbull's name is meant to conjure. Malkovich is relatively subdued as Turnbull, oozing self-righteous fury and contempt as only this actor can, albeit with the effects dialed down to 8 or 9 this go-around. All the better for leaving the serious scenery gobbling to Michael Fassbender who, after a run of serious roles in films like Inglourious Basterds, Hunger and Centurion, obviously gets a huge buzz from playing a cackling, tattooed Irish terrorist, Turnbull’s A-1 henchman-sadist. “Jonah Hex!” he shouts with twisted delight upon encountering our hero, “I’d recognize that undercooked pie hole anywhere!” The buzz is translated to the audience— Fassbender is, as always, magnetic. He’s the thinking person’s Sam Worthington, and as such it'll be no shock that he hasn't yet nailed the role that would make him a global star. (He and we might be better off if he ultimately doesn't.) But the movie rests on the weary but wide shoulders of Josh Brolin as the disfigured, disconsolate but ever-motivated Hex, a character drawn from a series of mid-70s DC comics whose revival in graphic novel form presaged this movie adaptation. On the page Hex has a personage much more resonant of hell-spawned demons than the more human carriage of guilt and fury weighing down Brolin’s Hex as he travels the prairies and mountains, first as a bounty hunter, then as a supernaturally-aided avenger. But even without the white-hot brimstone packaging, the temptation might have been to play Hex exclusively for his grim purity, a single-minded vision of hate-filled eyes burning for revenge, Clint Eastwood by way of Coffin Joe. Brolin, fortunately, allows for some humor—he has a way with a slightly upturned eyebrow when measuring his enemies that would make any good comic envious. And he does well with the obligatory dry one-liners— “What happened to your face?” taunts one of Turnbull’s goons, to which Hex responds with a tomahawk to the neck and an elegantly tossed-off “I’m all out of wise-ass answers,” a clue to Hex’s weariness as well as a nifty rejoinder to a couple decades worth of witty (and more often wilted) movie comeback lines.
What’s most surprising about Jonah Hex is the way in which it inhabits the traditions and ambience of the movie western. There’s real mournfulness when Hex rides his horse through a Confederate graveyard—director Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!) gives us the time to soak in the image rather than force us to play it back in our minds, an afterimage left by a squall of too-quickly-successive visual jolts. The echoes of the genre’s most revered and not-so-revered ancestry coursing through this movie’s DNA are plentiful, none perhaps so welcome as its insistence, despite its multimillion-dollar budget, upon alternating those wide-screen vistas with a playfulness that keeps this violent movie from getting dour. Hayward retains a sense of splendor at the western landscape that isn’t violated by editing the images into reflective, incoherent shards (something that might have happened had the movie been directed by its scenarists, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the auteurs responsible for the Crank movies), all the while keeping with the pace and purpose of a full-color version of one of John Wayne’s pre-Stagecoach Republic Pictures. (Jonah Hex, which maybe could have actually used a little more meat on its bones, runs a snappy, bloat-free 82 minutes.) The movie’s neatest conceit is Hex’s ability to revive the dead with a touch, an ability not derived from the original comic books, if memory serves. It’s here bestowed on him by Neveldine and Taylor through the intervention of Native American healers after the physical and emotional violence of Turnbull’s assault. This ability turns out to be a lively way to dealing with that ol’ exposition problem, and it sets up a terrific scene between Hex and his dead, ex-best friend, Jed Turnbull, who hops out of the grave ready to continue the fight Hex ended his life on.
Admittedly, Jonah Hex’s aspirations exceed its reach—tonally, the movie never strikes a proper balance between its western roots, the overtly supernatural elements that occasionally lead it into blackly humorous Tales from the Crypt territory, and its own desires to fulfill the visual ambitions of the stock Hollywood blockbuster. Turnbull hopes to take his own personal extension of the War Between the States to a national level with the help of a high-tech weapon which fires little gold cannonballs that deliver much pictorially impressive destruction. But as Jonah inches closer to foiling Turnbull’s plot, the movie inches closer to a more 21st-century Hollywood conventional conclusion, an episode of Mission: Impossible on horseback, or worse yet, an unfortunate reminder of another TV western adaptation which this leaner, meaner movie thankfully far outstrips. And certainly I would have appreciated the casting of someone other than the plasticine Megan Fox as Hex’s romantic interest. This Flavor of the Moment’s heavy-lidded beauty and flat-line vocal expressions remind me of nothing so much as a blow-up doll on opiates; she hasn’t the spark to make me believe in her character’s feisty survival instincts. (Think what an equally beautiful but far more interesting actress like Mila Kunis or Maggie Q could have brought to this role. Fox, on the other hand, only makes me think she’d like nothing more than to blow off this movie stuff, curl up in her trailer and go to sleep.)
I was an avid reader of the comic’s initial incarnation in 1977, but stopped reading well before its cancellation in 1985, yet I only caught the movie on DVD a few nights ago after having missed it during its short theatrical run. And I was more than a little surprised by the fact that I enjoyed Jonah Hex quite a lot. Even so, I feel like I was holding my breath for at least the first half in dread of stumbling upon the moment when the movie would turn into the stinker I’d been led to believe it was from the multitude of dismissive reviews rained upon it this past June. Strangely, it never came. After the movie ended, it was no surprise to check out the roster of writers who had issues with the movie, some more intelligently expressed than others, to be sure. And I had remembered than Armond White liked it. But White’s prose reads like the words of someone desperate to justify his enjoyment of the movie by avoiding addressing it with anything like its own tone. When White writes, “Jonah’s post-Civil War adventure parallels contemporary malaise. N&T adapt the… comic book to fit their timely sense of disquiet and cultural confusion—that post 9/11 dread that Bruce Springsteen aptly described as ‘a fairy tale so tragic,’” well, let’s just say we differ as to why we liked Jonah Hex.
However, reading Stephanie Zacharek’s review was a bit like getting a friendly zap from a joy buzzer. Were it not for the fact of her superior ability to express herself and use language that sounds as if she speaking with you rather than at you, I would have thought I’d written the review myself, so close was it to my own experience with the movie. Of course, the percentage to which one agrees or disagrees with a critic is no measure of that critic’s worth to her subject or as a writer in general, and I have differed with Ms. Zacharek enough during my history of reading her to say this with absolute conviction. (She still hasn’t seen the light on Speed Racer.) But what marks her as a smart, independent voice is not so much her willingness to speak her mind in the face of a publicist’s wet dream of prefab conventional wisdom-- she has registered early, well-articulated objections to The Dark Knight, Inception, Up and any number of other reliably well-received hits—but a quality I value even more, a willingness to step up to the plate for pictures with bad buzz or built-in resistance to being taken seriously even as disposably enjoyable mass entertainment. Some of my favorite pieces by Zacharek in the past few years have been her spirited defenses of the low-brow pleasures of movies and series like The Transporter or The Fantastic Four, or performances like Sandra Bullock’s in The Blind Side, about which seemingly every right-thinking, multiculturally oriented liberal had already decided had gone too easy on the movie’s Bible-thumping Southern Christian protagonist (and, of course, by extension, Bible-thumping Southern Christianity) who would exorcise her white guilt by lending a hand to the Po’ Black Man.
Well, add Zacharek’s keen review of Jonah Hex, published last June on Movieline, to that list. Zacharek starts off with a line that might lead you to think you’re in for one of those “It’s so bad it’s good” pieces: “There’s something to be said for low expectations, especially when it comes to summer movies.” Let the nudge-nudge-wink-wink condescension begin, right? Well, no. This critic then proceeds to neatly sum up precisely why the movie worked for her, in language that suggests she enjoys engaging with it on its own lowdown terms. It has something to do with Josh Brolin playing Hex “with a wink and a snarl” and “a relatively restrained John Malkovich — for once he cuts the scenery into bite-size morsels before chewing it.” But after elaborating where the movie also doesn’t work for her (including a train robbery sequence that, despite a horrifically explosion conclusion, fizzles for momentum’s sake), she settles on praising director Hayward for the “downright leisurely” way he approaches the film’s visual strategy. In the essay's highlight, Zacharek writes:
“Jonah’s suffering is the usual alone-in-the-landscape business, but Hayward at least tries to find some poetry in his desolation. At one point Jonah approaches a cemetery on horseback — there’s a corpse in there what needs talkin’ to — and Hayward uses a simple wide shot to capture the idea that, among a mass of white headstones with rotting bodies beneath them, Jonah at least has the meager advantage of being alive.”
That’s called seeing the movie. It’s also why I’ve come to value Stephanie Zacharek’s writing—as Hex himself might say, she’s quick, she’s got herself a lip, and she ain’t no snob. (She’s also not blind—check out her review of Skyline if you think she’s a sucker for every piece of junk that appears-- appears-- to aim low.) Now, if I could only get her to see the light on the Wachowski Brother’s masterpiece…