“I can’t make up my mind,” I admitted to my wife. “I mean, on the one hand, there’s the Megan Fox Rule. On the other, well… it’s Jonah Hex. I love Jonah Hex, it’s been one of my favorite comics for decades.”
“But the thing’s been through reshoots, two directors, God knows how many rewrites… it’s bound to be a mess. And all that CGI stuff. ”
“But on the other hand, Josh Brolin is great. All the clips I’ve seen he really nails it, he’s got Hex down.”
I added, “And there’s John Malkovich, he’s good too.”
“Josh Brolin is good,” Julie agreed. “He should do more Westerns, he’s got that kind of face.”
“But… Megan Fox. She’s so not the kind of woman Hex would be into. She’s supposed to be this world-weary hooker but Megan Fox trying to look world-weary just ends up looking… I dunno, slutty and vapid. Like Paris Hilton when she’s bored.”
“So I just don’t know,” I finished. “I mean, I don’t expect greatness. I’d be happy if we just had fun at the movie. The comics people on the net are all sneering but that’s their default position. After all, we had fun at Ghost Rider and comics fans hated that one.”
“I liked Ghost Rider,” Julie put in. “It was okay.”
“Anyway, Jonah Hex might be really terrible. Or it could surprise us. You decide.”
“We should go,” Julie said. “And have dinner first. Maybe stop in at Half-Price Books, even.” (The bookstore is conveniently close to the theater — so our movie nights out often result in a few new additions to the library, as well.)
So we went.
The good news? It didn’t suck. We had a good time.
The bad news? The movie wasn’t good, either.
As I feared, it’s kind of a mess. Sometimes it’s an over-the-top action effort like The Wild Wild West, complete with a megalomaniacal villain using bizarre steampunk technology in a scheme that threatens the entire nation. Other times it’s trying to be a horrific supernatural story about death and destiny like The Crow.
And yet — every time I was ready to just give up in disgust, there was an actual Jonah Hex moment. Something so purely and wonderfully Hex that I sat up straight and said, “Hey, there he is. That’s the Jonah Hex I wanted to see.”
The first of these moments comes early on in the movie, when we first meet Jonah Hex. We open on a shot of Hex dragging three dead bodies behind his horse. He rides slowly into a small town where the mayor, the sheriff, and a couple of other town officials are standing on a porch.
Hex tells them he’s got the outlaws they sent him after and he’d like the payment they agreed on.
The mayor smirks. “I see only three bodies… the agreement was for all four…?”
The words are barely out of his mouth when Hex tosses him a bloody burlap bag containing a severed human head.
“Fourth was too fat for m’horse,” Hex drawls, as the mayor’s trying not to throw up.
That was when I grinned ear-to-ear and thought, Hey, maybe this is going to work.
Then, of course, it becomes clear that the town officials never had any intention of paying Hex off and he’s going to have to shoot his way clear. Again, pitch-perfect.
But it all goes to hell when it’s revealed that Jonah has Gatling guns mounted on either side of his horse and that’s what he uses to take out all the town officials that have suddenly drawn on him.
I had a lot of moments like that. Stuff where I was really pleased with what I was seeing — especially how the filmmakers set up Jonah Hex’s feud with Quentin Turnbull.
Some images seemed lifted almost perfectly out of the comics themselves. Brolin and Malkovich absolutely sold that origin scene and it was all condensed and adapted remarkably well. I don’t think any Hex fan would have a problem with it.
…well, at least not until Turnbull and his posse leave Jonah for dead and it turns out that being left for dead gave Jonah the ability to talk to dead people. Again, a great scene, pure Hex, and then it takes an abrupt left turn into stupid. This happened a lot.
Look, I’m not a purist. I’m even sort of okay with the idea of Jonah Hex being done as a supernatural Western.
Certainly, I can see the reasoning behind wanting to differentiate Jonah Hex from other “vengeful cowboy” movies, especially since the Turnbull/origin scenes came uncomfortably close to the opening of The Outlaw Josey Wales in a couple of places.
But the core problem isn’t the gimmick. The core problem is the constantly-shifting tone of the movie and the fact that it looks like it was edited in a blender. I think it’s summed up by Jimmy Palmiotti right here on CBR, in this set-visit article, with this quote:
“We have visited a few times the supernatural elements of Jonah’s world. Taking it much further in the film comes down to how they are going to sell an almost unknown property to the regular summer movie goers. Making it a straight western might have been death in the box office, and I understand that on some level.”
And Justin Gray from the same article:
“When you’re looking at making a wide release feature film, you have to appeal to as many people as possible and as I’ve said many times before a western is a hard sell regardless of the medium. With the monthly book we write, [readers get] a mash-up of straight western with spaghetti and grindhouse, stories that have a pulp nature, but are firmly rooted in the realism of the old west. I really think the way the film is shot and the differences will appeal to a young audience, and that’s what makes sense in terms of marketing.”
In other words, the movie people clearly decided, Jonah Hex as a straight western isn’t going to be big enough and loud enough for a summer comic book movie. We better tweak it to be bigger and louder. Because we can’t sell a western.
Speaking as someone who loves Westerns in general and Jonah Hex in particular, this notion is maddening. Because it seems obvious to me that the core film of Jonah Hex started as something good, the filmmakers clearly meant to do right by the character… but it slowly got tweaked and edited to death in an atmosphere of increasing panic over how to market the thing. And all because “we can’t sell a western.”
Hollywood can’t sell a western? Are you kidding me? Westerns have been successful in movies and television for the better part of a century. Stagecoach. Gunsmoke. The Searchers. Bonanza. True Grit. Rio Bravo. Ride the High Country. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Wild Bunch. The Magnificent Seven and the three sequels and TV series that spun out of it. A Fistful of Dollars. High Plains Drifter. And so on.
Oh, sure, those are classics. But they mean you can’t market a Western movie to modern audiences.
Uh-huh. So I guess we just won’t count Silverado, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, Unforgiven, Broken Trail, The Quick and the Dead, Young Guns, Lonesome Dove, Deadwood, 3:10 to Yuma, Pale Rider, Dances With Wolves, or any of a dozen others I could name. I didn’t even mention the successful series of Louis L’Amour adaptations done for TNT starring Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott, or the Hallmark Channel’s equally-successful series of made-for-TV westerns starring Kevin Sorbo, Luke Perry, and Lou Diamond Phillips.
And with every one of those successes, starting right around when Silverado came out in 1985 and continuing on up through 3:10 to Yuma a couple of years ago, some idiot has started a news article about them with the words, “Just when we all thought Westerns were dead,” or maybe, “The Western movie is back!”
For God’s sake. The Western movie never left, you morons. Audiences just want a GOOD one.
Come to think of it, people have been saying that same sort of thing about comics for decades. “You can’t sell a western.” “People only want superheroes.” “Western comics are dead.”
What’s the exception to that conventional wisdom?
Oh yeah, Jonah Hex.
This “westerns are dead” business is one of those things where I can’t figure out how the idiot idea ever took hold in the first place, there’s a mountain of evidence to contradict it, but it did. The moviemakers got it lodged in their heads that Westerns are a hard sell and so they decreed that Jonah Hex can’t look like a Western. Instead, they front-loaded it with Megan Fox and a heavy-metal soundtrack and a lot of CGI and prayed something would stick.
The hell of it is, the movie has its best moments when it abandons all those things and just lets the characters come through. Brolin as Jonah Hex is magnificent. So is John Malkovich as Quentin Turnbull.
Those moments make me ache for the movie that we almost got. You can sort of see it, through the layers of rewrite stuff that was added in a frenzy of commercial desperation.
So, bottom line, the movie wasn’t good. But we still enjoyed it. It was on the low side of okay. It’s going to tank hard at the box office and comics people are probably going to be savaging it for years, but it’s worth a look on DVD or when it shows up on cable. Mostly for Josh Brolin’s performance as Hex.
But don’t spend money. Your Jonah Hex dollars are put to much better use purchasing the current comics from Palmiotti and Gray, and especially the original graphic novel No Way Back with stunning art from Tony DeZuniga.
Incidentally, we did stop at Half-Price Books between our dinner out and arriving at the theater, and I picked up a nice used copy of High Plains Drifter, which I’ve been meaning to see for years. My friend Paul swears up and down that this is the REAL Jonah Hex movie. (Although The Outlaw Josey Wales should be considered as well, if you ask me.)
We’ll see…. when this column’s done I’m going to make a big bowl of popcorn and settle in with my bride to check it out. And maybe even Josey Wales afterward. If we can’t get a proper Jonah Hex in the theater, well, we can fake it here at home and sigh for what might have been.
See you next week.
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