What went wrong here? A compelling comic book character, great actors, a goofy but potentially funny revisionist-western storyline, excellent production values. This could have been one of the great, bleak, Dark Knight-esque comic-with-a-conscience summer movies. Instead, it limps through a barely-feature-length runtime, telling an incoherent-to-the-point-of-avant-garde story that’s stupid when it should have been sublimely ridiculous.
The plot, when the movie remembers to have one, goes like this: during the Civil War, Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) fought for the Confederacy, but the corrupt and lascivious actions of his superiors disgusted him. He killed a man who turned out to be the son of Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who in turn killed Jonah’s family and branded his face, leaving it permanently and disgustingly disfigured. In 1876, Turnbull is a terrorist hell-bent on blowing up Washington, D.C., during the centennial celebration. He’s gained access to top-secret plans for a precursor to the atomic bomb designed by cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney (no, really). Jonah is tasked by President Grant (Aidan Quinn) to stop Turnbull from using the weapon. For some reason, Megan Fox plays a prostitute named Lilah. The movie unsuccessfully attempts to sell us on a love story between Jonah and Lilah, but she does make a nice damsel in distress in the third act (after disappearing for a relatively long stretch).
For yet another unknown reason, Jonah has the ability to talk to the dead. The writers go to great pains to establish the rules of this power in a hilarious scene where Jonah first explains that he can’t bring people back to life for very long, then proceeds to ramble about the rest of the rules while the deceased writhes in agony. See, as Jonah touches their body and speaks to them, they start to burn. They burn more quickly if they’ve been dead for a short period of time. This last rule handily allows Jonah to quickly torture the recently deceased for information and have a lengthy, heartfelt conversation with his brother (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who died in the war. Incidentally, this stupid power exists solely as a lazy way for Jonah to gain information. Why bother investigating when he can just find out the plan from Turnbull’s dead cronies?
I could spend this entire review theorizing on what happened behind the scenes to ruin this movie, but at the end of the day, I don’t care. What I care about is the end result, which—whether it actually is or not—feels like they shot half a script and tried to smooth over the bumpy scenes with lazy voiceover and one of the worst (and most arbitrary) animation sequences I’ve ever seen in a medium- to big-budget film. The disjointed story never comes together, the characters are wildly, almost laughably inconsistent, and the writers seem content to mine every western cliché in the book. The writers add a sci-fi/fantasy angle to try to make these clichés seem a little more inventive.
The sci-fi/fantasy angle doesn’t work at all. I have no familiarity whatsoever with the comic, so I just assumed that’s where it came from. The writers had to put it in to appease its fans, even though it never makes sense and is incredibly stupid. However, after the screening, I talked to a friend familiar with the comic. Jonah’s most prominent superhero power in the movie—his ability to talk to the dead—does not exist in the comic at all. In fact, the comic doesn’t even have sci-fi/fantasy elements. It’s just a standard western comic inspired by Peckinpah and Leone, following a badass antihero whose only “superpower” is flawless marksmanship.
Jonah Hex wastes a terrific cast. Brolin mumbles his way through the movie with a distracting Yosemite Sam impersonation. He and Malkovich show amazing commitment to ridiculous characters. These performances may have worked exceptionally well in a better movie, but in this movie, it’s just depressing. Even Megan Fox does a pretty good job in a barely-there role, which surprised me. I’ve actually never seen her in a movie, but the hype surrounding her led me to believe she’s a vacuum of talent. I wouldn’t describe her performance as a revelation, but she also wasn’t distractingly bad.
The world wasn’t exactly clamoring for a Jonah Hex movie. Although compelling, he’s not as well-known as, say, Batman or Superman. This film could have introduced him to a much wider audience, and created a great comic-book movie franchise. Hell, it may have even rekindled the mostly dead revisionist western genre. It fails on pretty much every level, however. The filmmakers blew a big opportunity.