The Movie Masochist: The stink stays in the picture
Thursday, 24 June 2010

Because anything ever printed on a comic-book page is now considered viable movie material, you have to dread the day studios start building summer epics around ads for sea monkeys, X-ray glasses and Charles Atlas muscle-building guides once the pantheon of characters is finally exhausted.

Until then we have "Jonah Hex," a fantasy-Western built around a lesser-known character in the DC Comics universe that's been kicking around since the early 1970s, despite occasional cancellations. The frequency with which the name "Jonah Hex" is uttered, however, leaves the impression the movie began life as a drinking game.

"Jonah Hex" was dogged by rumors of disaster long before its release. Those whisperings must have started among those who read the final screenplay, which is partially credited to a pair of writers listed as "Neveldine and Taylor" - a joint moniker that suggests they abandoned careers as a soft rock duo before dabbling in movies.

Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) is a former Confederate soldier who roams post-Civil War America killing bad guys for little fun or profit. He still wears his tattered uniform, a clothing choice that, combined with his disfigured face and gaping cheek hole, gives the fleeting impression that both the man and the outfit were badly chewed by moths. Hex and the sweaty supporting characters give off such air of uncleanliness that "Jonah Hex" may be the first comic-book adaptation that makes you want to cover your nose and mouth with a clean handkerchief.

Actually, the movie's attention to both historic and unhygienic detail is one of its unexpected strengths. The scruffy facial hair, yellow teeth and lived-in look of the clothes give the movie a fascinating texture that its bare-bones narrative hardly deserves, creating a peculiar experience that's simultaneously tactile and brain-numbing.

A haphazard prologue tells us Hex has supernatural powers because he was generously revived from death by Crow medicine men who hadn't yet heard of managed care. Being a near-corpse for a brief time allows Hex to communicate with the dead, no matter how bad their state of decomposition. Another uncanny Hex trait is his magical resistance to vomiting, seen in his ability to open long-buried coffins without being sickened by the pent-up gases inside.

The story, or what's left after some rumored heavy editing, has Hex seeking revenge on his former commander, an ex-Confederate general who killed Hex's family and burned his face with a branding iron. Villainous Gen. Turnbull (John Malkovich) has devoted his postwar career to destroying the Union and whacking people hard with his eagle-topped cane. A stern and worried Ulysses S. Grant (Aidan Quinn) hires Hex to stop Turnbull, allowing Hex to get revenge and be a federal employee. Hex talks to some dead guys, spends time with an implausibly empowered prostitute (Megan Fox) and kills a bunch of people before sending Turnbull to his final reward. The Union is saved, leaving Grant to enjoy more mundane problems like the Teapot Dome scandal.

"Jonah Hex" gives its unexpectedly strong cast - Brolin, Malkovich, Quinn, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnett and Michael Shannon - little to do except mutter threats and declaim in a florid 19th-century manner. Scenes end abruptly with Hex riding hither and yon, accompanied by a very personable dog. If one day Warner Bros. executives find themselves franchise-poor, they could build a lasting series around this dog. With his flattened ears and wolfish grin, he could carry a movie as ineptly written as "Jonah Hex" because he'd need no lines.

Rated PG-13 for violence and suggestions of 19th-century aromas.

One star. Lousy.

The rating system:

1 star: Lousy

2 stars: Horrible

3 stars: Painful

4 stars: Traumatic

The Movie Masochist is an emotionally wounded cinephile who lives in the United States. He watches bad movies so you don't have to.


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