CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: JONAH HEX
BY MICHAEL ARRUDA & L.L. SOARES
(THE SCENE: the interior of a saloon in the old west. MICHAEL ARRUDA enters the swinging doors and walks toward the back of the room, where L.L. SOARES is playing cards with a group of dangerous-looking desperadoes)
MA (grits his teeth): The clock is ticking, amigo.
LS (puffs on a cigar): Yeah? What of it? Don’t you see I’m involved in some serious business here.
MA (spits onto ground): The movie isn’t going to review itself.
(A COWBOY with a scar across his face stares into LS’s eyes.)
COWBOY (swallows saliva): You got any threes?
LS (takes cigar out of his mouth): GO FISH! You got any eights?
COWBOY (growls, then starts crying): Yes, I do.
LS (dancing around): I WIN, I WIN. OH BOY, OH BOY!
(The other card players groan and growl in defeat. Then they get up and shuffle away)
LS: Like taking candy from babies.
MA (sits down at the table): Ready now to review JONAH HEX?
LS: Just one more thing. (raises arm and shouts) Barkeep, a bottle of your finest whiskey for me and my compadre here.
MA: Much obliged, pardner.
LS: JONAH HEX is the latest comic book to be turned into a motion picture. This time around, it’s a weird western character from DC comics who came into prominence in the 1970s. Since then, he’s appeared in various series and miniseries, including a few written by horror writer Joe R. Lansdale. So you can see the character has some horror credentials, too.
Hex has the ability to temporarily raise the dead by touching them. But, the longer he revives them, the more they start to burn up. So he only has limited time to get the information he needs out of them.
He also seems to be a kind of immortal. Being that he’s died a few times, but continues to come back. This has something to do with the magic of the Crow Indians, who have a close connection to Hex (his wife was a member of their tribe).
MA: “Kind of immortal” is the operative phrase here, because he’s says in the movie that he’s not immortal, meaning that at some point or by some way he can die, yet you’re right, he has died a few times and come back. So, maybe he’s like a cat with nine lives, or maybe his mortal weakness hasn’t been discovered yet.
LS: As we begin, Jonah Hex is a soldier in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. When some of his fellow soldiers, including his best friend, Jeb Turnbull, and Jeb’s father Quentin (John Malkovich), a general who gives the orders, decide to start killing innocent women and children as part of their tactics, Hex has a problem with that and shoots and kills Jeb.
Quentin decides to avenge his son’s death by taking away Hex’s family in retaliation, burning Hex’s wife and young son alive, and branding Hex’s face with a Q, so he will always remember the man who “took away everything he ever loved.” It’s not like Hex was going to forget that anytime soon!
Tied to a cross and left for dead, Hex is revived by the Crow tribe in a strange ceremony. He comes back brimming with a desire for revenge. When he hears that Turnbull has died in a hotel fire, Hex channels his fury into being a notorious bounty hunter instead, who— when it comes to bringing them in “dead or alive”— rarely opts for “alive.”
But Turnbull isn’t dead after all. In fact, he’s the leader of a gang of thieves and cutthroats who have been pillaging banks and trains, in an effort to gather together the pieces of a kind of “weapon of mass destruction” designed by cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney (I bet you never learned THAT in history class). The weapon, which resembles a gigantic Gatling gun that shoots cannonballs, is Turnbull’s tool to finally defeat the Union Army and President Grant (Aidan Quinn). Once assembled, Turnbull plans to use this weapon to assault the nation’s capital during Fourth of July celebrations.
MA: This super weapon also shoots glowing orange balls, which, and correct me if I’m wrong, aren’t explained all that well in the movie. What are they? Are they supposed to be nuclear or something?
LS: Well, the glowing orange balls are shot out after the cannonballs, and are the “detonators.” But you’re right, this is never really explained to anyone’s satisfaction, and we have no idea where these orange balls came from.
Once Hex finds out that Turnbull is alive, however, he finds a renewed purpose in life, and the U.S. government capitalizes on this by recruiting Hex to stop the insane Confederate general. Hex is happy to oblige in going after the man who killed his wife and son.
And that’s the story in a nutshell.
(A mysterious figure enters the saloon and approaches their table)
LS (looks up at the shadowy figure): Can I help you?
(Figure tosses coat aside, showing he is really DEPUTY DOG)
DEPUTY DOG: I heard you were back in town, Cinema Knife Fighters.
LS: Got that right.
MA: Keep your shirt on, deputy. We’re just two honest folk doing a job here, nothing more. We don’t want no trouble, do we now?
LS (chews cigar): Nothing we can’t finish, anyway.
DEPUTY DOG: No? Well, I’ve got news for you. I’ve come to clean up this place.
(LS puts his hand on his holster)
(DEPUTY DOG pulls out a wash cloth and starts wiping down the table)
DEPUTY DOG: Is that clean enough for you?
MA: Actually, you missed a spot, but we won’t hold that against you.
DEPUTY DOG: Gee, thanks! If there’s anything else I can do for you gentlemen, just let me know.
LS: You can leave us alone so we can get on with our review.
DEPUTY DOG: Yes, yes, of course. (He goes over to the other tables)
LS: Where was I? Oh yeah, Josh Brolin is actually pretty good as the disfigured, amoral lawman Hex, who will stop at nothing to get the vengeance he craves. I’ve always liked Brolin and I think he’s a good leading man. Malkovich does a credible job as Turnbull. And Megan Fox is even along for the ride as Lilah (at one point, she says her full name is Tallulah – wouldn’t that make her nickname Lulah?), a prostitute who loves Hex and acts as kind of a sidekick in a few scenes. Michael Fassbender also adds some oomph to the movie as Turnbull’s right hand man, Burke, who is adept at hand-to-hand combat, and killing, and who would love to add a notch on his belt for killing Hex.
MA: I liked Brolin a lot too as Jonah Hex, though truth be told, this really isn’t a good movie for any of these actors. While Brolin is fine, his character remains incredibly superficial throughout this movie. Now, this isn’t Brolin’s fault. He’s fine. The fault is with the writing. The screenplay by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor is more interested in action sequences than characters.
Megan Fox is as beautiful as always, but her character is so very limited, I can’t even tell you whether I felt she gave a good performance or not. She did so very little, it’s hard to judge. She should have had many more scenes with Jonah Hex.
I was most disappointed with John Malkovich as the villain Quentin Turnbull. I’m not sure if he just mailed it in, or again, if it’s the writing, or both. But here’s a guy who should have been really nasty and hated, not some generic cardboard cutout bad guy.
LS: Yeah, after he kills Hex’s family, you’d think Turnbull would be a lot more despicable. But he’s actually kind of bland. Which is not what you expect from a Malkovich performance.
While I liked JONAH HEX and thought the cast was pretty good, I also found the movie kind of skeletal.
MA: VERY skeletal.
(A COWBOY SKELETON pops up behind them.)
COWBOY SKELETON: That’s what I’m talking about!
LS: At 81 minutes, it moves at a nice pace and takes you from Point A to Point B quickly, but there’s not a long of meat on its bones.
COWBOY SKELETON: There’s nothing wrong with that.
LS: Get out here, you numskull!
(COWBOY SKELETON storms off towards bar.)
LS: No one here is given much to work with, not even Brolin, who chews the scenery when he can. What this means is that a movie that could have been much deeper and more resonant has been reduced to cinema fast food that will leave you hungry afterwards. The dialogue is another weak spot, peppered as it is with lots of sly one-liners from everyone involved, which adds to the light atmosphere.
MA: And the one-liners aren’t even that good. The best ones were all in the trailers.
LS: I actually hate it when one-liners stand in for real dialogue. For a movie about family-killing and vengeance, JONAH HEX doesn’t seem particularly intense. And it seems to be a bit too “comic booky” for its own good. Of course, by “comic booky” I mean what people who don’t read comics think they should look and sound like, not taking into account the heights of storytelling the medium has actually been capable of.
JONAH HEX almost seems to be trying to be like an old west spin on the IRON MAN formula with mostly non-stop action and clever little bon mots.
Real people don’t act this way. Real people don’t turn everything into a witicism. Real people suffer. And while there’s plenty of suffering to go around in this movie, we don’t exactly FEEL any of it. Which is too bad. Because had they gone a darker and slightly weirder route – like the work people like Lansdale have done with the character – this could have been a satisfying foray into old west justice.
As it is, JONAH HEX is a throwaway film about a minor DC Comics character who never really got his due. This movie could have redeemed Hex and given him the showcase he deserved. Instead it just turns him into an action hero in a Stetson.
MA: This film could have been much more intense, and it would have been better for it.
It started off that way. I thought the initial sequence where Quentin kills Hex’s family in front of him was a rather powerful and intense way to start the movie, and I thought it set the stage nicely for the whole revenge plot. I understood completely why Jonah would be driven to go after Quentin. But other than this scene, that was it for intensity.
You and I often go back and forth about PG-13 vs. R-rated horror movies, and I often argue that a PG-13 horror movie can be just as scary as an R-rated horror movie. Here, though, I’d make the argument that JONAH HEX would have been a better movie had it been R-rated. The revenge theme is dark and very adult, and to do it justice, I think you need to visit some dark places. These places were not visited in JONAH HEX.
I started off really liking this movie. I liked Brolin as Hex, and I liked the comic book look and feel of this movie, but as it went along, and as it became apparent that, as you said, there wasn’t much meat to the bones, I grew tired and disappointed that better things weren’t happening.
I thought the screenplay was strictly average, and definitely much more interested in things exploding than character development. I have nothing against action scenes, but in a movie where the characters aren’t giving you much in terms of reasons to feel for them, these scenes grow old quickly. And it’ s not even like these action scenes were all that great. They’re not.
Director Jimmy Hayward gave the film a nice look, and unlike you, I liked the comic book look and feel of this film. And there actually were some cool scenes in this one.
I loved the Snake Man scene, for instance. The Snake Man himself was scary, and it’s disappointing that he only appeared in that one scene.
LS: In a better movie, the Snake Man would have become Hex’s sidekick and would have been developed as a character. Here, the character is a throw-away. Which pretty much describes the entire movie. The whole thing is very disposable, which is disappointing. Because you know it could have been a much better movie.
MA: The scene where Hex announces that they’ll need more coffins is a direct homage to Clint Eastwood in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964).
Now, I love the old “spaghetti westerns” with Clint Eastwood. Even though those movies were violent for their time, there was much more to them than just scenes of violence. In terms of style, director Sergio Leone imbued those movies with so much style you can’t even compare them to something like JONAH HEX. Those Eastwood movies blow HEX out of the water.
Call me old school, but I prefer my movies to have some decent character development and dialogue, and not be one action scene after another. To me, that’s a video game.
MA: But that’s not to say I didn’t like JONAH HEX, because I actually did. A little bit, anyway. See, I enjoy westerns a lot, and for a while anyway, this one was moderately entertaining, but ultimately, offered little that was new. I’ve seen these revenge stories played out countless times before in films much better than JONAH HEX.
I did like Hex’s power to talk with the dead, and I thought the scenes where he does talk to the dead were the best in the movie. Here was something that you don’t see in westerns every day.
LS: Yeah, the resurrection scenes are definitely some of the better ones here. I wish they’d delved more into that ability of Hex’s.
(A horse dressed like a man comes over to their table, followed by a short burro in a sombrero)
LS: If it isn’t the sheriff in these parts. Quick Draw McGraw!
BURRO: And don’t’ forget me, Baba Louie!
MA: Can’t I?
QUICK DRAW: This here saloon isn’t big enough for all of us, Knife Fighters.
LS: I know that.
BABA LOUIE: You’re right about that, Quick Draw.
LS (puts his hand on his holster again and grits his teeth): So what do you two plan to do about it?
QUICK DRAW: Well, there’s another saloon down the street. Me and Louie will probably go there instead.
LS: Good thinking, for a horse.
(MA throws him a lump of sugar).
QUICK DRAW: Gee, thanks!
BABA LOUIE: We’ll go this time, but you two better watch your backs. I hear EL KABONG has been cited in these parts.
QUICK DRAW: Let’s go, Baba Louie. I’m dying for a beer. I think I’ve got the shakes.
LS: JONAH HEX is fine as a popcorn movie, and you won’t be bored by it. But since it’s so shallow and one-dimensional, I saw it as a missed opportunity to be a much better movie. The seeds are there. They’re just never given a chance to sprout.
I give JONAH HEX two knives. Brolin is suitably angry and intense, but the movie doesn’t give him enough to rail against. Malkovich is mostly wasted. And while Megan Fox is known more as being eye candy than for her acting (which isn’t going to change anytime soon), she’s not in this movie enough (and we don’t get to see enough of her, if you get my drift).
Everyone seems to be in a rush, and we’re left with an appetizer instead of a meal. Which is too bad, because I’m sure everyone involved could have given us much more.
I did enjoy the music the band Mastodon contributed to the soundtrack. They’re one of my favorite metal bands.
MA: I think I liked it just a tad bit more than you, which isn’t saying a whole lot. I found JONAH HEX to be average, average, and did I say? Average?
LS: Not really surprising, when you consider that director Jimmy Hayward’s only previous directing credit is 2008’s HORTON HEARS A WHO! Not exactly a logical choice for a good, gritty western.
MA: Yet, I’m still going to recommend it because I liked the main character a lot, Jonah Hex, a bounty hunter who can talk to the dead, and I liked Josh Brolin in the lead. I thought the film had a good look to it, and in spite of shallow characterization and action sequences that won’t blow you out of the water, there was just enough meat on those old bones for me to be mildly entertained. You called it a popcorn movie, and I agree, but I like popcorn. It’s not a meal, but it is a satisfying snack.
I give JONAH HEX two and a half knives.
(COWBOY SKELETON returns to their table with a group of other skeletons.)
COWBOY SKELETON: We have a bone to pick with you.
LS: Yeah? What’s that?
COWBOY SKELETON: Step outside.
(CUT To line of SKELETONS in dusty street outside saloon, facing LS and MA, all of them ready for a gunfight.)
COWBOY SKELETON: Draw!
(They all whip out pencils and paper and begin to sketch.)
MA (shows LS his drawing of skeleton): What do you think?
LS: Not bad. Here’s mine. (Shows MA sketch of 2 skeletons in a suggestive pose.)
MA: What the hell is that?
LS: They’re playing “horsey.”
MA: I think it’s time to end this column. We’ll see you next time folks, with a review of another new movie.
© Copyright 2010 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives JONAH HEX – 2 and a half knives
L.L. Soares gives JONAH HEX – 2 knives