“Jonah Hex” is an action movie that aims to give an offbeat comic book character what he needs to jump to the big screen but it is misguided and leads to a movie that misfires. In the spirit of Guy Richie pumping adrenaline into “Sherlock Holmes,” Jimmy Hayward attempts to do the same with this cult favorite title from DC Comics. Along with sharing some steampunk urgency, both of these Warner Bros. movies have star power. James Brolin’s brooding Hex can pretty much hold his own with Robert Downey Jr.’s neurotic Holmes.
When a big studio rolls out an action movie, you can expect a lot of shooting and things being blown up. And the lead character is likely on a big mission to save his country, if not the world. Where “Sherlock Holmes” was an action movie with a mystery to solve, the villain’s ultimate plan wasn’t revealed until the very end. But with “Jonah Hex,” we at least get an interesting look at John Malkovich’s Turnbull and what he has in mind with his Nation Killer machine. And we get to see him get closer to satisfying his evil plans than we usually do in an action movie.
Writing duo Neveline and Taylor (“Crank”) do a fair job of working with the comic book history of Jonah Hex. They explore Hex’s brief stint with the Confederacy which spiraled into tragedy. In the movie, General Turnbull has his revenge on Hex, for killing his son in a fair fight, by killing Hex’s wife and son and disfiguring his face. Hex is left tied to a cross where he would have died if not for being rescued by the Apache. It is this experience, like being bitten by a radioactive spider, that defines Jonah Hex. Having come so close to death, Hex is now virtually fearless and, in the movie version, he gains the ability to interact with the dead.
Some good scenes involve Hex confronting the dead. In one scene, we cut to a graveyard. We hear the clink of a shovel and that disrupts a murder of crows. We then cut to Hex as he places a hand on a corpse that suddenly returns to life and wants to resume the fight it had with Hex when alive. There’s another scene where Hex gets to enjoy killing one particularly evil dude, played by Michael Fassbender, and then brings him back to life for one last thrashing.
And Megan Fox gives us a decent performance despite limited screen time and a corset that could easily displace every one of her internal organs. As Tallulah Black, the love interest, and sidekick to Hex, Fox proves believable and a delight in her brief time in the movie. The gripe that she can’t act is pretty tiresome. She can act. We just don’t see that much of her in this movie. In fact, the whole movie is made up of all too brief scenes as if it is afraid to linger for very long anywhere.
I can imagine Warner Bros. executives having “Sherlock Holmes” fresh on their minds when they gave “Jonah Hex” the greenlight. Whether we should welcome a trend of mashing up thoughtful source material, be it classic or contemporary, with the action movie genre remains a bit up in the air. I think Guy Richie got away with it but it was something of a close call. In the case of “Sherlock Holmes,” you don’t mind too much it being more style than substance. With “Jonah Hex,” that delicate balance is upset. When you’ve got a music video type sequence of Hex and Turnbull in a fantasy fight scene to fill time, that’s not good. And then to return to it to fill more time, that’s really not good. This is not to say there aren’t some good things going on in this movie but just because it’s an action movie and it includes Megan Fox doesn’t mean you can take anything for granted.
There are enough hints to indicate that “Jonah Hex” could have been a much better movie than what was released. So, maybe that can be a lesson to learn: Aim at least as high as Guy Richie’s “Sherlock Holmes” and then aim higher still. Director Jimmy Hayward said in an interview, in the current issue of the Jonah Hex comic, that the only way to make “Jonah Hex” today, by a big studio, is as an action movie. In light of this action movie version of Jonah Hex, you’re just left thinking that can’t be quite right. In the same interview, Hayward spoke of his love of quirky Westerns like, “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Maybe Hayward should have followed his heart and maybe he would have ended up making a movie people would want to see instead of one that makes it harder for the next offbeat project to get picked up by a big studio.