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Monday, June 29, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Jonah Hex (2010)


Director: Jimmy Hayward
Starring: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich
Domestic Gross: $10,547,117

If there's any one thing that I've learned since I began purposely seeking out the box office bombs of summers past, it's that more often than not those failed movies deserved to fail and that audiences' instincts to stay away were sounds. While there have been some hidden gems in this series, including last week's Down With Love, they represent the minority; most of these films are not merely box office failures, but in some fundamental way cinematic failures as well. Jonah Hex is most certainly a failure, a film that audiences rightly steered clear of in the summer of 2010, that failed to attract ticket buyers even with its comic book association, even with its relatively (compared to the bloated running times of most films these days) attractive short running time, and even as counter-programming to Toy Story 3, released on the same day, it couldn't manage to open to more than $5 million and change. If Jonah Hex has now been completely forgotten, it would only be fitting. The only interesting thing about it is that it features a still on-the-cusp Michael Fassbender in a supporting role.

Once a Confederate soldier, by 1876 Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) is a notorious bounty hunter, a man physically scarred from a run-in with his former commanding officer, Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), and emotionally scarred from watching Turnbull and his henchman, Burke (Michael Fassbender), murder his wife and son. Though left for dead, Hex survived to pursue vengeance against Turnbull, using his newfound ability to communicate with the dead to help guide him, but Turnbull's death in a hotel fire robbed him of his opportunity and so he's spent his time since becoming one of the most feared men to roam the land, his reputation always a few miles ahead of him. When it is discovered that Turnbull is alive and well and that he is planning an assault on Washington to "celebrate" the United States' centennial, President Grant (Aidan Quinn) sends out a party to collect Hex and force him into duty for the government. Hex refuses to work in service to anyone or anything, particularly a nation that he refuses to recognize as his own, but he's not about to turn down the chance to take his revenge on Turnbull. It's no easy task, however, as Turnbull has gotten hold of the components for a super weapon and he's kidnapped Lilah (Megan Fox), Hex's sometimes lover, whom he threatens to kill unless Hex surrenders to him.

Based on the comic book of the same name, Jonah Hex does exactly one thing right and does it in its first 10 or so minutes, so it's all downhill from there. The thing that it does right is sidestepping the temptation to turn the whole narrative into an origin story and instead limiting the origin part to a few minutes and a few sentences of voice over narration, much of which plays out over animation designed to look like it comes straight out of a comic book. In this way, and this way only, other movies of this type could learn from Jonah Hex's example, as so many other screenplays would take Hex's backstory and make that the story, saving what happens here for the hoped-for sequel. In every other respect the film is a disaster, though assuming that it's faithful to the source, some of those problematic elements are probably inescapable. For example, Hex gains his supernatural abilities because when he was near death he was revived by Native Americans who, as we all know, are magic. It's the sort of racist "othering" that people think they can still get away with because it makes it seems like what it's doing is a positive thing - they're awesome, they have super powers! - when what it's actually doing is making the othered group seem inhuman and, in this case, reducing them and their culture to a prop in service of the protagonist. Another problematic element is Lilah who is, of course, a prostitute because it's unimaginable that a woman could be anything else in a western, even a western that can imagine a protagonist who has the ability to bring corpses back from the dead by touching them, and a story that centers on the possession of a superweapon capable of leveling an entire city. Lilah exists solely for the suggestion and titillation of sex, and to further define Hex as an outlaw who doesn't conform to societal expectations through his ongoing relationship with a woman who works as a prostitute and his nonchalance about the fact that she sees other men when she's not with him. As depicted by Jonah Hex, she's not a person, she's just a symbol designed to illuminate aspects of Hex's character. She's an appendage, a being that exists not for any purpose of her own, but to provide purpose for Hex's actions and motivations.

Less problematic, at least in turns of thematic ugliness, without being unproblematic is the film's steampunk elements, which Hollywood has tried to pull off a few times in an effort to revitalize the western genre, but which has never really worked. I mean, if Will Smith, functioning at peak-Will Smith, couldn't make it work with Wild Wild West, then Josh Brolin wasn't going to pull it off here while playing a charmless character with a half-melted face. Jonah Hex is created from pieces of the western genre and pieces of the science fiction genre, but its cherry picking of elements results in a film that seems like it has no country. It doesn't belong to western genre or the science fiction genre, nor do its supernatural elements make it fit with the fantasy genre, nor does the fact that its based on a comic book make it seem at home with other comic book movies. It's a misfit and a mishmash which seems to have no central idea to hold it together, no concept of what it actually wants to accomplish, which it tries to disguise by simply throwing as much out there as humanly possible.

No one emerges from Jonah Hex unscathed. Brolin gives an uninspired performance in the lead, relying on a reserved, tightlipped persona that worked so well for Clint Eastwood in the western genre but just makes everyone since seem like they're doing an Eastwood impression; Fox is given little and somehow manages to do even less with it; Malkovich is sleepwalking through a role for which he is severely miscast (Malkovich can do a lot of things, but he doesn't exactly sell as a Confederate military leader); Fassbender brings some liveliness to his role, but that still doesn't make it amount to anything more than being the most formidable man on screen in every scene except for his last one, where he becomes almost conveniently easy for Brolin to kill - twice! The pointlessness of the project pervades all the performances, and the unfocused nature of the film itself doesn't help. At 81 minutes, the film is slight in size, but it's slight in every other way, too. Jonah Hex is a film that has no reason to exist and it's amazing that anyone, at any point, thought there was an audience for this.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: No, no, and no.

3 comments:

Wendell Ottley said...

"For example, Hex gains his supernatural abilities because when he was near death he was revived by Native Americans who, as we all know, are magic. It's the sort of racist "othering" that people think they can still get away with because it makes it seems like what it's doing is a positive thing - they're awesome, they have super powers! - when what it's actually doing is making the othered group seem inhuman and, in this case, reducing them and their culture to a prop in service of the protagonist. Another problematic element is Lilah who is, of course, a prostitute because it's unimaginable that a woman could be anything else in a western, even a western that can imagine a protagonist who has the ability to bring corpses back from the dead by touching them, and a story that centers on the possession of a superweapon capable of leveling an entire city. Lilah exists solely for the suggestion and titillation of sex, and to further define Hex as an outlaw who doesn't conform to societal expectations through his ongoing relationship with a woman who works as a prostitute and his nonchalance about the fact that she sees other men when she's not with him. As depicted by Jonah Hex, she's not a person, she's just a symbol designed to illuminate aspects of Hex's character. She's an appendage, a being that exists not for any purpose of her own, but to provide purpose for Hex's actions and motivations."

Yes, yes, and YES!!!

And this movie sucks ass!

Norma Desmond said...

That's putting it nicely!

Fisti said...

OMG! Like, I actively avoided this movie, because, well, look at it...but I had no idea just how awful this was! Brilliant review!