Friday, June 18, 2010

Review: "Jonah Hex"

The standard for this summer's crop of flicks is already depressingly low, with one high-profile disappointment after another. But even if we lower our standards so that our entertainment merely has to be coherent, "Jonah Hex" seems cursed.

When I was writing my summer movie previews, I spotlighted this Western-oater-meets-supernatural-thriller as one of those I was most looking forward to. Based on the dark-and-dreary previews seen earlier in the spring, it looked like an adaptation of a graphic novel much in the same vein as "The Dark Knight."

But then another trailer emerged a few weeks ago, much lighter in tone -- full of the scarred, taciturn anti-hero (Josh Brolin) casually shooting people and tossing off comedic one-liners. It was Dirty Hero meets Arnold Schwarzenegger, with spurs on its heels. This, unfortunately, was a much more accurate preview of the film.

Perhaps I should have been tipped off that the comic books (by John Albano and Tony Dezuniga) were adapted for the screen by the execrable filmmaking duo that calls itself Neveldine & Taylor (the first names they so eschew are Mark and Brian, respectively). Their credits include the "Crank" movies and "Gamer," and that tells you pretty much all you need to know about what "Jonah Hex" is like: Fast-paced to the point of ADD, jumpy editing and characters drawn with the broadest brush available.

The director is Jimmy Hayward, whose only other credit is the strange "Horton Hears a Who!" from a couple years ago. His action scenes are muddy and confusing, to the point that we have trouble understanding exactly what is going on. Josh Brolin, a talented actor, gives a more or less one-note performance as Jonah Hex. Megan Fox does little but pout and flash her ubiquitous cleavage. And John Malkovich, whose intensity as an actor is best when reigned in by a strong director, is allowed to burn through every scene he's in.

The story is a straight revenge flick: Confederate turncoat Jonah, who defied an evil general's order to destroy a hospital, suffers a terrible punishment. Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich) wreaks his vengeance by killing Jonah's wife and son in front of him, and branding his face with his mark. Jonah is left (after a little self-adjustment) with the entire right side of his skull a web of ruined flesh.

Turnbull is believed dead, but when his men appear to be stealing the plans to make the ultimate weapon the U.S. government designed but feared to build, President Grant assigns his men to track down Jonah -- now a bounty hunter -- to help capture or kill Turnbull.

Jonah has special powers that allow him to communicate with the dead by touching their bodies. It's never explained exactly how he acquired this power, although there's a reference to some American Indian magic hokum. Because he came so close to death himself, or something like that.

Anyway, the dead reconstitute themselves to the way they looked when they were alive, but they start to burn painfully the longer Jonah holds them in this state. He can ease the hurt by pouring soil on their heads -- see, "the dead need the dirt, and the dirt wants the dead." One long-dead corpse, whom Jonah slew with his own hand, immediately starts fighting with him the moment he's resurrected. Although resurrection isn't the right word, since to everyone but Jonah, the corpses remain still.

Jonah likes to carry an arsenal of fancy weapons that are entirely implausible, but at least look like they were manufactured in the film's era, much like the gear in "Van Helsing." Jonah rides around with two hand-cranked machine guns strapped to his horse (even though they must weight a few hundred pounds) that he uses to mow down some nasty townfolk who refuse to pay a bounty in the film's opening scene.

There are also these funny-looking pistols that show up. Apparently they have sticks of dynamite stacked underneath like a magazine of bullets, and when Jonah fires one of them is lit and flung by a mini-crossbow at his enemies. Of course, they explode upon impact, no matter what point the fuse has reached in its burning. After blowing away a few dozen men with them, he then drops these unique weapons that he just paid a lot of money for on the ground.

Megan Fox shows up as Lilah, a knife-wielding prostitute who wants Jonah to settle down and build a house with her. Lilah must not be very sharp herself if she thinks a man with half his face burned off and an obsession with death is the best the Old West has to offer in a mate. It's never even mentioned how such a gorgeous woman can look past Jonah's gruesome visage.

Even the prosthetics Brolin wears on his face aren't very convincing. It's supposed to appear that Jonah has a huge hole in his cheek -- even if we hadn't seen him drawn that way in the comics, the movie's animated exposition depicts him so. Brolin just looks like they added an extra strip of skin over the side of his mouth that forces him to mumble all his dialogue. Hell, "Darkman" did a better job of this 20 years ago.

Barely 80 minutes long, "Jonah Hex" is an interminable, dusty disaster.

1.5 stars out of four

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