I knew there was trouble brewing for Jonah Hex when its theatrical trailer debuted only three weeks before the film was set to debut in June. It seems Warner Brothers was not thrilled with the DC Comics adaptation starring Josh Brolin, John Malkovich and Megan Fox, which subsequently tanked at the box office, pulling in just over $10 million. As released, Jonah Hex shows faint sparks of promise but has a narrative so disjointed and rushed that you can practically hear the on-set squabbling.
Brolin is titular antihero Jonah Hex, a bounty hunter with a terrible facial scar given to him by Confederate officer and terrorist Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich). Hex refused to destroy a hospital with Turnbull during the Civil War, and his actions got Turnbull's son killed. In return, Turnbull scars Hex with a brand and kills his wife and son. Native Americans save Hex from death, but part of him never returns, giving Hex the ability to talk to the deceased. The government later asks Hex to track down Turnbull, who is planning a Fourth of July attack on the Union, giving him the opportunity to avenge his family.
It is surprising that the Jonah Hex comic got adapted at all, as it is not one of DC Comics' hottest properties, and Hex is no Clark Kent. Not to mention that recent Westerns, even the good ones like The Proposition or 3:10 to Yuma, haven't exactly killed it at the box office. But, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, of Crank fame, did adapt the screenplay and were apparently on board to direct until they butted heads with the studio. Jimmy Hayward, whose only other feature credit is the animated Horton Hears a Who!, was eventually given the job.
I doubt much of the Neveldine/Taylor script made it on screen; I cannot imagine Brolin or Malkovich was offered enough of the film's $47 million budget to sign on if the original script was as bad as the movie. What is on display here screams studio interference and production trouble. Jonah Hex's chief sin is being fairly incomprehensible. Scenes are cobbled together indiscriminately, and characters often arrive without introduction and leave just as quickly. Things get off to a rocky start with a Hex voiceover before plowing into the branding and family killing, which, at that point, is only delicately supported by any background information. The film unnecessarily repeats this scene at least three more times.
Successful films often allow the audience to discover plot details that change the meaning of scenes. Jonah Hex uses the delayed reveal as a storytelling crutch. In scene after scene, characters relay the most basic information about prior events. The filmmakers apparently confused the art of discovery with the annoying technique of duping the audience by rewriting history. Looked at linearly, the plot of Jonah Hex is pretty standard. The film ends up telling the story like a bad, pointless Memento. Had the filmmakers taken some time to set up the characters and narrative, Jonah Hex might have been more satisfying. I assume Warner Brothers wanted to save face and mandated the shortest possible run time, and the film clocks in at a ridiculous 82 minutes. Excluding the end credits, you get an hour and twelve minutes of movie. Length and quality are not always mutually exclusive, but Jonah Hex could have used some breathing room.
Despite the bad, the film is not all gloom and doom. Brolin does his best to breathe some life into the dead screenplay, and Malkovich is entertaining despite being an underdeveloped stock villain. Fox, who plays a prostitute in love with Hex, has limited screen time, and is far from the worst thing in Jonah Hex. Director Hayward's action scenes lack spark, but Jonah Hex is stylishly shot, and Mitchell Amundsen's cinematography is good when not edited to death. Some of the set pieces and locations are also impressive and criminally underused. I would have appreciated a killer showdown in the under-construction District of Columbia.
With a better script and a true auteur behind the camera, Jonah Hex could have been an interesting comic book adaptation. I imagine the parties involved in bringing Jonah Hex to the screen are disappointed in the final product. Creative differences seem to have damned Jonah Hex from the beginning, resulting in a convoluted, boring mess.
Warner Brothers presents Jonah Hex on DVD with a disappointing 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Quality is all over the board, but rarely rises above average. The transfer lacks fine detail, and frequent compression artifacts give the film an ugly, noisy appearance. The entire affair is quite murky, especially in darker scenes, and faces are frequently cloaked in shadow. Edge enhancement popped up occasionally, and I noticed a fair amount of digital noise reduction. In several scenes, Fox and Brolin lose all definition in their faces and look like wax figurines. The film's desert palette is preserved well color-wise, and a crimson dream sequence looks better than the rest of the film. The transfer is not atrocious, but gives the film an unnatural, digital appearance.
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is appropriately punchy, especially during action sequences. Dialogue is at all times clear, and gunfire and explosions are loud and convincing. The film's rock soundtrack is also well-accentuated and not overly obtrusive. The track meshes effects and dialogue well, and likely replicates the theatrical experience. Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also available in Spanish and French, and English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles are included.
Deleted scenes (5:10) are the extent of the disc's bonus content. None of these are particularly consequential, but their video quality tends to surpass the feature presentation.
While it is not the abomination you may be expecting, Jonah Hex is a mess. At a scant 82 minutes, the film is a rushed and confusing bore. This is a missed opportunity, as the source material is worthy of a much better adaptation. The actors are game, but something gets lost in translation. Maybe a great film is on an editing room floor somewhere. Skip It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.