During the American Civil War, Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) betrays his Confederate brethren when General Turnbull (John Malkovich) orders his troops to burn down a hospital. A gun battle claims the life of Turnbull’s only son, so he takes revenge by burning Jonah’s family alive and scarring his face with a hot iron. Some years later, Jonah rides the west as a hard-bitten bounty hunter. His brush with death has endowed him with occult powers and he wields an impressive array of fancy firearms, whilst cultivating a tentative romance with gutsy prostitute Lilah (Megan Fox). When President Ulysses S. Grant (Aidan Quinn) is beleaguered by a plot to oust his government led by terrorist Turnbull and some confederate conspirators, he asks Jonah to face-off against his old enemy.
DC Comics may hold the two tentpole superhero film franchises in Batman and Superman but none of their other comic book creations have yet caught on with the moviegoing public. So it proved with Jonah Hex which, while nowhere as awful as many would have you believe, is still less than the sum of its parts. Jonah Hex first appeared in DC’s All-Star Western in the early Seventies when wild west comics were fading in popularity but horror was on the rise, resulting in intriguing hybrids. Hence All-Star Western was rechristened Weird Western Tales. Created by writer John Albano and artist Tony DeZuniga, Jonah got his own comic series in 1977 which upheld the weird west feel till the end of its run in 1985. That same year the character was given a reboot with Jonah transported into the far-flung future as a post-apocalyptic road warrior type. Although unloved in America, this science fiction version was a cult success across Europe. In the wake of popular westerns like Unforgiven (1992) and 3:10 to Yuma (2007), DC revived the original Jonah Hex and also spun him off into animated adventures including an appearance in Batman: The Animated Series where he was voiced by William McKinney and a recent short film voiced by Thomas Jane, who campaigned for the lead in this live action movie but lost out to Josh Brolin.
Having matured into a grizzled character actor, Brolin excels as the gravel-voiced bounty hunter whose flinty eyes and laconic demeanour perhaps intentionally evoke the young Clint Eastwood. Whilst closer in style to outlandish spaghetti westerns like If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death (1968) and Sabata (1969) with their gadget laden heroes and seemingly supernatural overtones than the hyper-realism of Sergio Leone, the film also lifts ideas from the Mad Max movies - which were of course heavily influenced by westerns - as when Jonah stumbles into a Thunderdome-like arena of battling mutants and rescues a mangy dog being bullied by thugs (“They’re just jealous of your good looks, boy!”) who then follows him wherever he goes.
The film is assembled with competence and a fair degree of panache by former Pixar animator Jimmy Hayward, for whom this was a surprise departure from his last work, the outstanding CGI animation Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who (2008). His visuals stay the right side of flashy without sacrificing that authentic western feel, but the pace lags between set-pieces. There are some genuinely disarming ideas running through the script co-written by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (credited only by their surnames - what’s up with that?), including allegorical allusions to modern terrorism, political corruption and how big business is driving America to ruin. All of which suggests this was a much more ambitious film before producer Akiva Goldsman had his way, as unfortunately these ideas never quite gel. Frenetic editing makes a mess of seemingly crucial scenes like the flashback revealing Jonah’s wife and son, his resurrection at the hands of Native American medicine men and his cod-metaphysical showdown with Turnbull, and the film is too reliant on Jonah’s voice-over as its narrative glue.
Megan Fox is pretty dang good as the two-fisted tart with a heart, offering further evidence this often unfairly derided star has more to offer besides sultry sex appeal. But despite her spirited action gal antics sprinkled sporadically throughout, she actually has little to do with the main plot. Similarly wasted are the rest of the fine supporting cast including Michael Fassbender as Turnbull’s cocky Irish henchman, Will Arnett as a stuffy cavalry officer, Wes Bentley as a corrupt Southern senator, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the zombie incarnation of Turnbull’s late son - who shares a wry exchange with our hero. About the best that can be said of Jonah Hex is, for all its disappointments, it remains considerably more watchable than Wild Wild West (1999).