It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone why Jonah Hex is already a financial failure. It is a grim piece of business, needlessly loud and overly familiar.
Josh Brolin is easily convincing as the brutally scarred title character, a libertarian bounty hunter with vengeance on his mind. Early on in this Civil War-era western, we learn that it’s not a good idea to piss off John Malkovich. He’s so infuriated with Brolin, our tied up hero is made to watch his beautiful wife and daughter burn to a crisp. If that wasn’t bad enough, Malkovich wants to brand him like cattle. So he leaves a mark on his right cheek to serve as a reminder for his sordid deeds. It doesn’t stay there very long. (In a quick flashback sequence, Brolin literally slices it off. Manly.) Believing Malkovich is dead, which deprives him of his sole motivation, he turns to killing for profit.
What did Brolin do that was so bad? He killed Malkovich’s son (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Sounds heartless, right? But it’s not what you think. (Bare with me here.) Brolin served under Malkovich in the Confederate Army even though he’s not in favour of secession nor slavery. He just wants to be left alone and has no interest in serving politicians. (That doesn’t completely explain his involvement in the war but I digress.)
Malkovich has a serious beef with the federal government. How serious is this beef? He’s willing to bump off a whole bunch of innocent civilians in order to cause anarchy and topple Washington. Anyway, when he gave the order to his men to torch a hospital and everyone in it, Brolin was aghast and refused which led to the encounter with Malkovich’s son and, well, you know the rest.
As the film progresses, we learn of Malkovich’s dastardly plan for Independence Day. Along with his loyal men, all fellow disgruntled Confederates, he’s on the hunt for an unusual weapon, a super cannonball, if you will. Fire off one of these glowing orange globes into a vulnerable population and it’s wipeout city. While President Ulysses S. Grant (a wasted Aidan Quinn) is delivering his address to a small crowd in D.C., Malkovich and company will quietly sail in undetected on a boat lying in wait.
Long before we know any of this, the stymied government sends a dozen of its soldiers to locate Brolin at a whorehouse where he occasionally checks in with his unconvincingly loyal lover, Megan Fox. She’s a bored prostitute who satisfies the daily needs of paying customers while simultaneously waiting and waiting some more for her man to whisk her away to a better life. (She’s awfully patient while he’s remarkably tolerant of her job.) When Brolin is informed that Malkovich didn’t actually die in a horrible fire (big surprise), he’s willing to meet with Will Arnett (the Arrested Development star in a rare dramatic turn) to hear him out.
The government desperately needs Brolin’s assistance in seeking out Malkovich in order to determine his plans before he executes them. With about 20 Fourth Of July celebrations expected across the country, it’s imperative to get to him and his band of merciless thugs before he wipes out millions of Americans. (What’s in it for Brolin? A full pardon.) Arnett explains that the government is relying on a new thing called "intelligence" to secretly acquire this much needed information but there are glitches. (A guy gets electrocuted while Arnett is talking up its virtues.)
Brolin has a better idea. Thanks to the malicious Malkovich, the scarred one now has a super power. When he touches the dead, they come back to life temporarily. Thankfully, the government apprehended one of Malkovich’s cronies (whom they stupidly and immorally tortured to death), so Brolin works his magic and gets a good lead.
That good lead takes us to an underground fighting arena where we briefly meet the most interesting character in the entire film: The Snake Man. He’s a scary, bald dude who hisses, drools and attacks his opponent like a venomous mixed martial artist. Far scarier than Malkovich, it’s a shame he only appears in the one scene. I wanted to know his whole back story. It has to be more interesting than this formula fare.
You could fill a warehouse with the number of revenge pictures Hollywood has churned out over the decades. Add Jonah Hex to the growing heap. In a matter of seconds, we’re expected to care about a situation we’ve seen many times before. It would’ve been nice to have gotten to know the characters first. That way, we might’ve actually felt something beyond depression and contempt for this miserable mess.
Brolin has a strong screen presence here but there’s not much to his character beyond his superpower gimmick, the cool scar and his gruff demeanour. He has zero chemistry with Megan Fox who is given very little to do beyond looking beautiful, fending off an overly persistent john in a couple of scenes and then firing off a pistol in the film’s climax. (She also looks quite bored.) If she wants to be taken seriously, she needs to stop slumming it in these worthless "eye candy" roles and step it up in a better movie. Although she looks great in close-up (Gene Siskel’s definition of a movie star), she has yet to make a true impression.
Malkovich is disappointingly low-key as the "terroriste". Looking and sounding disinterested at almost every turn (he’s a bit more animated during a speech in the third act), it’s hard to believe this is the same man who brilliantly terrorized Clint Eastwood in In The Line Of Fire. He also looks too out of shape to have ever been in the Confederate Army. Considering the utter predictability of the third act, you’d think he’d be more committed to bringing out the audience’s loathing for him. Sadly, that is not the case. The same can’t be said for his accented comrade Michael Fassbender. The whistling, tattooed sociopath is so cheerfully villainous you wish Malkovich shared his personality.
But the biggest problem with Jonah Hex is its volume. Any time there’s an explosion or a gunfight, it’s utter mayhem for your ears. These scenes, which are often hard to follow because of that annoying shaky cam and relentless editing, are so goddamn loud I’m amazed I can still hear. I remember a similiar experience during the opening scene of Twister 14 years ago. Sad to say, the problem has gotten much worse in the years since. Why there isn’t a huge movement to protest this nonsense is beyond me. It’s become truly unbearable.
Jonah Hex is joyless and derivative to the point where you’re relieved it’s only 80 minutes long. I’m not sure I could’ve taken another second of its ungodly noise.
(Special thanks to Dave Scacchi.)
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Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, June 20, 2010