REVIEWED: JONAH HEX

Jonah Hex

Hex's face is not the ugliest thing about this film.

It isn’t surprising that given its critical pasting from U.S. critics, and its diabolical box office therein – garnering a pitiful $10.5m against a $47m budget thus far – that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a cinema playing Jonah Hex this weekend. Fox, it appears, as with their recent critical and commercial disappointment Cop Out, have hastily thrown prints of the film into a few select cinemas, perhaps hoping to recoup losses from a few bored cinemagoers who take a chance upon it. Thankfully, though, an advertising campaign consisting of practically nothing should keep even the most easily entertained audiences away from this cynical dud of a film.

Taking place during the American Civil War, the titular protagonist (Josh Brolin) is a former Confederate soldier, who fought under Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich). However, Hex’s refusal to destroy a hospital sees him outcast, for in the practise of protecting it, he causes the death of Turnbull’s son. In revenge, Turnbull burns Hex’s home down, killing both his wife and young son, and also brands his face, causing it to become horribly scarred and disfigured. Rejuvenated and now oddly imbued with Native American powers to communicate with the dead, Hex, after hearing that Turnbull is still alive despite humours of his demise, goes on the hunt to settle his score once and for all.

One might wonder how exactly a brainless film about cowboys featuring lots of explosions can in any way be “cynical”. The film’s 81-minute runtime – which is actually closer to 70 without the credits – speaks volumes, if not that the product itself, featuring choppy editing and a virtually charmless narrative flow, is so sloppily minimalistic that it’s astounding that any executive would sign off on its release. It is evidently a gutted, chopped down version of a mediocre film, rather than an outright dire one, and it is difficult to believe that any unconstituted footage could make the film any more incoherent.

Pretty much the only thing that goes according to plan is the acting. Well, that and the fact that Hex’s horse sports a massive gatling gun, but, oddly, it gets only a few seconds of action (at least in the footage that made it to the screen). Brolin and a strangely distinguished cast, including the aforementioned Malkovich – who hams it up and really seems to get it –  along with Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnett, Michael Shannon, Wes Bentley, Tom Wopat and The Wire‘s Lance Reddick give the pulp a good run, but when their efforts are disrespected so thoroughly, it’s no surprise that their work does little good. Unfairly criticised for her performance here and for her work in general, Megan Fox is at least well-cast as prostitute Lilah. A sex scene might have livened things up, yet as she cosies up to Hex, we get a fade to black instead, despite the 15-rating (though it recieved a meeker PG-13 in America).

The torturously poor editing job is apparent from the opening scenes, detailing what appears to be a lengthy back story in all of several minutes, pacing the picture in an odd, alienating manner that’s the most obviously sliced apart element of the film. Incredulously, the film rattles briskly through its more detailed elements while lumbering slowly through the more boring ones. It makes its most apparent forebear, the similarly panned Wild Wild West, look like a masterpiece.

Unfortunately, the film is flawed conceptually, also; the dumb plot, fashioned by the usually good Neveldine and Taylor (of Crank and Gamer fame), features Turnbull and his cronies attempting to make U.S. citizens disillusioned through numerous acts of terrorism, arguably the most indirect route possible by which to overthrow the government. Of course, only Hex can stop them.

Though director Jimmy Hayward races through the cliches like his life depends on it, the real crime is just how goofy – but rarely fun – this film is. Just when you think the film has settled down into some sort of groove of badness, it turns out that, yes, Hex can talk to dead people, seemingly out of nowhere. Similarly baffling is the dismissive regard the film has for some of its established supporting players – Michael Shannon and Wes Bentley’s characters especially pop into frame for mere seconds at a time before disappearing for long stretches, with screen time totalling no more than a minute or two. Again, though, it has to be the studio-imposed hack job at work.

Simply, how hard should it be to make a film of this sort moderately entertaining? Though the acting and make-up is decent, the action is infrequent and stunted, and there’s just not enough of Fox prancing around in a corset. While some of Neveldine and Taylor’s tongue-in-cheek dialogue makes the cut, it is unsurprising to hear that several of their more outlandish ideas, not least that the film feature buckets of gore, have been nixed here, and of course, the further axing of the filmed footage only makes things worse.

There’s an admirable simple-mindedness to narratives like this, but that presupposes a certain quality of execution that isn’t present here. Rather, Hex is best viewed as an example of how poorly studio intervention can impinge on talented artists, even if the final, wrangle-free product would still have been pretty naff.

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