“Jonah Hex,” which opens in theaters today, is a quirky Westernish adventure that plays to the tropes of the genre; it has an embittered man looking for vengeance; it has the man that wronged him somehow living the high life in a glamorous new situation; it has a woman the angry hero could love if only he could get his blood-hate out of his soul. In short, the movie hits all the right ticks, but does not manage to coalesce into a completely satisfying whole.
The Warner Bros. film opens with a fairly interesting and compelling origin for the character. Compelling because it is told in motion comics form and sets the rules for this version of Hex. Left for dead by Quentin Turnbull – himself feeling wronged by our hero – Jonah Hex is brought back to life by a nearby Indian tribe. The process leaves him with a peculiar ability to talk to the dead. The film is actually quite clear on what this means. Hex only has a limited time with the dead before their corpses begins to burn; fresher bodies burn quicker. They are compelled to tell the truth and watch over the people they knew in life. As the prologue puts it, “They always point the way.” It is actually an interesting take on the power and not an entirely out of place skill for Hex.
The film then turns to live action with the titular bounty hunter strolling into a town to collect his reward. The local sheriff tries to kill him and the entire settlement ends up in flames. This is a reoccurring motif in the early part of the film. Hex’s abilities are questioned, a fight ensues, and buildings end up on fire. Unfortunately, it vanishes as the meat of the story kicks in.
Hex is recruited by the US military to track down Turnbull, who is now something of a terrorist with ties to the nascent industrial complex. Turnbull’s gang has stolen parts for an experimental weapon that gives President Grant the cold shivers – a Nation Killer. While the Nation Killer itself is utterly anachronistic, the other parts surrounding it are strangely appropriate. The film establishes both Hex and Turnbull as having served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and the two characters reveal interesting layers of what it meant to survive that conflict. While Hex chose to enlist because he did not like being told what to do by the North, Turnbull’s motivations were less noble; his actions would be considered war crimes today. While both characters are still cartoons, it has been a long time since the War Between the States was giving any sort of play in a mainstream film. These threads continue throughout the film’s run time, even surviving the shift in tone.
Megan Fox appears in the film as Lilah, a lady of the night with eyes for our hero – though God only knows why. While she holds her own in the final action scene, there is precious little of her in the film. She appears early on to establish Hex’s (slightly) softer side, then returns much later as a hostage. Her sole character beat – trying to save money to buy a farm – goes unanswered and Hex never really acknowledges it.
Throughout the course of the film, Hex’s quest leads him to a freakshow/gladiator match, a conversation with Turnbull’s dead son, a military fortress and eventually up the Potomac River. The first two set pieces have the “Weird Western Tale” feel about them, with the gladiators appearring to be the Venom-enhanced freaks from the “Batman: Arkham Asylum” video game. Yet, their strange appearance and abilities are never commented on. Similarly, Jeb Turnbull is not the least bit surprised when Hex brings him to life, instead using the opportunity to strangle the bounty hunter.
This scene is actually one of the most interesting in the film. Once Jeb stops trying to murder Hex, the two have a conversation about vengeance. Jeb (played by an uncredited, but well-known actor) outlines the similarities in his father and Hex. The two are unwilling to forgive or die, so the rest of the country suffers as they kill people. It shades Hex as his actions are not entirely heroic. Oddly enough, Hex’s ability is never used again after his talk with Jeb.
After a siege of Turnbull’s fortress, the gang gets more serious about Hex, kidnap Lilah, and manage to nearly kill him again; though the local tribe comes to his rescue, as well. This leads to the final set piece aboard a steel boat armed with the Nation Killer. It is the least successful part of the film, as it sits at odds with the earlier, weirder portions. Turnbull’s threat is entirely composed of a supervillain-y scientific nature and the odder, almost campy flavor is replaced with a more straightforward action feel. It is almost as if the tribe resurrected Hex into a different movie – one that resembles “The Wild, Wild West” more than “Weird Western Tales.”
The Nation Killer itself is the stock “doomsday weapon” plot point, introduced in an attempt to make the stakes feel higher. The scheme predictably fails, as it amounts to little else but CGI malarkey and the sudden arrival of a steampunk aesthetic that is utterly at odds with the rural setting and earth-tones of the preceding hour.
That shift in tone may be tough for fans of the current DC Comics series to accept, and even the slightly campy tone of the earlier parts may be a trial. While Jonah Hex is no stranger to the environments depicted, the overall feel of the film is at odds with the grittier and more naturalistic vision of the character found on the page every month.
The film’s greatest strength is its cast. Josh Brolin makes an excellent Jonah Hex. He snarls and grumbles, but manages to find a good dose of humor under that make-up. While Hex cracks a joke once or twice, it’s the various reactions to him that often evoke laughter. Brolin surrounded by a surprising number of known actors in very small roles. Aidan Quinn delivers a President Grant with gravitas and conviction, never doubting any of the weirdness surrounding him. Michael Fassbender’s Burke probably has more character than Turnbull’s head goon needed, but it is indicative of the philosophy in casting. Wes Bently’s two-scene cameo as a captain of industry, Lance Reddick’s bizarre appearance as Western Era Lucius Fox, Will Arnett’s arrogant military officer, Tom Wopat’s brief turn as Colonel Slocum and that certain unnamed actor who plays Jeb all lead to a film overstuffed with great actors in microscopic roles. Yet, this is actually a good thing. The world feels more alive with all of these characters seemingly operating under the misguided belief that they are the star of the film.
“Jonah Hex” is an odd duck of a movie. Its early scenes suggest a strange but contained stab at modernizing the Western for a wider audience, but its conclusion, in all it’s overdone special effects glory, reflects the late decision to make it a summer tentpole release. While it has a stellar cast, its changes in tone ultimately lead to an unsatisfying visit to the Old West.
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