With so many better-known DC Comics still awaiting screen treatment, it’s somewhat surprising that Warner Brothers should have chosen “Jonah Hex,” a second-tier title at best, to run with. The disfigured Confederate veteran turned bounty hunter first showed up in the early seventies in All-Star Western and then Weird Western Tales before proceeding to his eponymous comic in 1977-1985, which was revived irregularly in the nineties and again in 2005 on a monthly basis.
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who wrote the script, aren’t much concerned with the complicated comic backstory involving Hex’s unhappy childhood; they’ve been content to cobble together a plot that resembles nothing more than that near-legendary travesty, 1981’s “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.” Hex (Josh Brolin) does battle with his former general and post-war terrorist Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who killed Hex’s family and gave him that terrible scar because of his betrayal of the southern cause, just as the Masked Man (Klinton Spilsbury, never heard of again) did against one called Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd), who’d killed his brother. Of course, the fact that Turnbull is a mad scientist type who plans to blow up Washington with a super-weapon built from sketches by that great gun-master Eli Whitney (who certainly wouldn’t cotton to the misuse of his name—sorry) also gives the narrative kinship to “The Wild Wild West,” though with a much nastier edge. The fact that the result calls to mind two of the worst westerns of the last thirty years might well give one pause.
But there’s a supernatural element, too. Since Hex came so close to death as a result of Turnbull’s brutality, being saved only by the ministrations of a Crow medicine man, he has the ability to talk to dead people by touching their corpses, something that comes in mighty handy when he’s tracking somebody. It would seem, though, that his expertise with guns, knives, hatchets and a couple of mini rocket launchers specially designed for him by a noble black gunsmith (who pauses to inform Hex—and us—that though he was a Reb, he never supported secession or slavery) is entirely a natural gift.
Anyway, the surly, solitary Hex—whose sole friend appears to be the prostitute Lilah (Megan Fox, introduced only to serve as both damsel in distress and Wild West Wonder Woman)—is commissioned by President Grant (a miscast Aidan Quinn) to track down Turnbull and foil his plot to use the Whitney cannon to destroy the centennial celebration in Washington and, thereby, the nation itself, thus winning the Civil War for the South a few years late. To succeed Hex must confront not only Turnbull, played with quiet menace and a dash of malevolent glee by Malkovich, but his sidekick, the evil Irishman Burke (Michael Fassbender), who plays his wicked part with the sort of lip-smacking relish one might have expected from Malkovich himself.
One of the curious things about “Jonah Hex” is that there are so many explosions in it. One wouldn’t expect that of a Civil War western, but the writers and director Jimmy Hayward apparently like to see things blow up real good, so they have buildings catch fire and explode at every opportunity, and trains and ships, too. They also add comic-book like montages and mystical visions to the mix to jazz up what’s actually a pretty rote, mundane story when stripped of such extravagances.
As for Brolin, one has to sympathize with his effort to act through all the facial prosthetics, but the fact is that the scar leaves him little chance to be expressive. He does toss off the character’s growling stabs at humor decently enough, though. And the part gives him a chance to make up for having been cheated of a big death scene in “No Country for All Men” by giving him what amount to several of them here. In one, he even gets to open wide for a crow to fly out of his mouth—the symbol of death, presumably, as flocks of them occasionally follow him around—as he’s brought back from the brink. Hayward seems to have given him free rein, concerned less with the performances than orchestrating the flamboyant effects, which the technical crew handle well enough. Cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen certainly helps matters along with his atmospherically gothic images, and Mario Beltrami and John Powell do their best to give the action propulsion with their bombastic score.
But it’s all to surprisingly little effect. “Jonah Hex” has the benefit of being short—the actual narrative doesn’t last much beyond 75 minutes—but it feels a lot longer. The problem isn’t that the movie is moody and morose; it’s that it’s flat and tedious. Among recent comic book movies it’s not bottom-of-the-barrel like “Catwoman” or “The Spirit,” but it’s not very good, either—more like “Daredevil” or “The Fantastic Four.” Maybe the property, like the character, is just cursed.