Monday, June 28, 2010

Jonah Hex

As is befitting its mangled protagonist, Jonah Hex is the cinematic equivalent of the winner of one of those Ugliest Dog competitions. It is a film that has slipped in and out of development hell so many times that it knows more about damnation than its half-dead hero, and my favorite tidbit on its Wikipedia page reads that the film is "very loosely based" on the original DC comic book of the same name. Subject to rewrites, multiple crew changes and, ultimately, pure indifference, Jonah Hex achieves a ludicrousness of execution so hysterical that you'll spend at least a portion of the time in the theater waiting for Nicolas Cage to make an appearance.

Originally set to be directed by that dastardly duo, Neveldine and Taylor, the insane team behind the Crank movies, Jonah Hex fell apart once when producers, purportedly under the guidance of star Josh Brolin, decided not to hire the action anarchists. The crew did, however, keep Neveldine & Taylor's screenplay, effectively firing the only two people who could possibly have shot the thing. Perhaps reasoning that only someone with experience in animation could handle the cartoony nature of the pair's writing -- a not altogether stupid line of thought -- producers Akiva Goldsman and Andrew Lazar brought Pixar, Fox and Blue Sky employee Jimmy Hayward, whose biggest previous credit was co-directing Horton Hears a Who!, to helm the picture.

What results is a catastrophic mash-up of audiovisual styles, mixing hillbilly, heavy metal, supernatural and Western tropes into the weirdest rip-off of The Outlaw Josey Wales you ever did see. There is always a certain joy in watching a film that does not play by the rules, that does not even seem to own a copy of the rulebook, but Jonah Hex contains all the transgressions present in Neveldine & Taylor's other works without the sense of self-awareness that they bring to those films; sketchy and vague as the pair's supposed satiric elements are, they at least give the impression that they know what they're doing deep down. With someone else trying to make heads or tails of their material, however, it's a miracle a film emerged at all, and I suppose it's not all that shocking that Wild Wild West as scored by the prog-sludge metal band Mastodon was the product.

Expository dialogue gets a bad rap, and Jonah Hex shows why, playing most of the first 5-10 minutes of an 81-minute movie (including credits) with either a voiceover narration or hysterically stilted lines spoken by characters on-screen. We see the titular hero (Brolin), a Confederate officer whose crisis of conscious led to the death of his friend, the son of his commanding officer, General Turnbull (John Malkovich), being tortured by the general. Turnbull murders Hex's family in retribution and brands Hex's face with his initials. Abruptly, the film cuts to animation -- why do so many comic movies use panel-like animation now? We know that these films are based on comic books -- jumping over the development of strange, supernatural powers and Hex's evolution into a bounty hunter as Brolin delivers the voiceover in the same slurred mumble he uses elsewhere due to the prosthetic makeup of Hex's facial scarring. By the time Hex growls, "This here's my story" when the film finally gets moving, he's told us so much we feel like the damn thing's halfway over.

It only gets worse from there. Hex's weaponry occasionally broaches steampunk territory, with horse-mounted Gatling guns and crossbow pistols that fling sticks of dynamite in an oddly straight path (no, seriously), all of which are provided by Reconstruction-era Q-substitute Smith (Lance Reddick), a freeman. (Smith lets us know that Hex's Confederate ties are not a source of contention, taking the time in the middle of conversation to randomly insert a comment that he knew Hex "ain't never believe in slavery.") For the most part, however, Hex uses traditional weapons. After all, it's weird enough that he can revive dead people by touching them.

That's what makes Jonah Hex loop around from terrible to hilarious: this is not a film that satisfies itself with merely killing someone once. No, bring 'em back for Round Two! Hex brings corpses back to life to interrogate them, yet this act of temporary resurrection for some reason causes the flesh of the reanimated being to burn and disintegrate. Once he's gotten what he needs, Hex kills them again. Matching the double-death scenario in sheer lunacy is the apparent need for no place shown on-screen to be left unexploded, and the almost casual way that Hex starts a fire in some places almost as if checking off an item on a to-do list shows where all of the film's $50 million dollar budget went.

No, wait, it gets even better. In some woefully misguided attempt to give this picture relevance, Turnbull is made into an anarchic anti-government wingnut, whom his Mexican slaves call "El Terrorista." I briefly wondered if this idea would have been expanded into a clearer slam against those good ol' boys who continue to wave their Confederate flags around and still claim to be ardent patriots, then I remembered what film I was watching. Turnbull decides to take down the country on the Fourth of July by building a secret "Nation Killer" weapon designed by Eli Whitney -- pause for dialogue about Whitney's history as the inventor of the cotton gin and father of the American Industrial Revolution -- to bring down Washington D.C. Did I mention that Will Arnett shows up as a Union soldier sporting a mustache and his deep "Michael!" voice from Arrested Development, and everyone acts if we're meant to take him seriously?

Oh, but I'll stop simply listing all the absurdities, much as I could entertain myself to no end pointing them all out. Jonah Hex, with its 73 non-credits minutes, has a lack of clear direction despite its clear revenge narrative. Most characters exist for no real reason, such as Michael Fassbender's Irish henchman named who-cares, made up in a tattoo that stretches out of his clothes and up his neck so that we might identify him among the other nondescript thugs flanking Turnbull. Both Malkovich and Brolin are slumming it, though Malkovich, who always figures out when he's on the set of something that will turn out to be a piece of garbage, goes into Maximum Malk Mode and may be the only person here playing the drama for comedy intentionally.

And Megan Fox, poor Megan Fox. I've waffled so often on how I feel about her that I just do not know what to make of her. Placed in the role of the tough prostitute/love interest Lilah, a name Brolin amusingly cannot say with his prosthetic disfigurement, for the same reason she found herself in the Transformers movies, Fox merely has to sit about and look pretty, occasionally kicking some butt so that she might look pretty whilst kicking butt. Her character serves nearly no purpose save the inevitable damsel scenario, and even those who trip over their tongues at the sight of Fox will be wondering why the hell the action breaks to jump back to her brothel room where little of consequence happens.

Despite it all, Jonah Hex reaches such a memorable level of badness, and is so mercifully short, that I enjoyed myself far more than I did any of the other summer action movies so far. There were clearly some high intentions in this film, as evidenced in its sly references, from lifting the giant cannon on the train from Buster Keaton's classic The General to the glow of the suitcase contents in Pulp Fiction -- maybe that "QT" Turnbull branded Hex with has a secondary meaning? -- and the talent involved, but something went horribly, laughably wrong. It figures that I should have this reaction, perfectly balanced between dislike of the film's clear failure and enjoyment of the ensuing train wreck, with a movie written by Neveldine & Taylor, whose Crank: High Voltage engendered a fair stronger iteration of the same reaction. Jonah Hex is as stupid as a film made by smart people can be, but if I laughed, even in a way that that the filmmakers did not intend, then who am I to pan it? Oh, indulge me for a moment as I break my promise to stop listing the inanities for one final tidbit: when Turnbull rides up the Potomac with his super-cannon, the viewfinder that targets Washington uses not crosshairs or the like but an actual outline of the Capitol building, presumably so his ignorant ex-Confederate subordinates know which building to aim at. Magnificent.

1 comment:

  1. Well done! You had the patience to write so much about this horrid movie. I couldn't even enjoy it as a bad movie. I didn't find much to laugh at, though I kind of enjoyed Fassbender. I just sat there numb and perturbed. The attack on Washingon was truly boring and dumb; the CGI was horrid - making the Potomac look like a vast sea. I wish they had explained HOW Jonah had gotten that ugly strip of skin sewn over the hole in his cheek. It bugged me the whole time.