Movie Review: Jonah Hex Hits Hard

Revenge got ugly, for sure, in Jonah Hex, but with the addition of one solid Action-Western romp, the state of summer movies got a whole lot prettier.   As far as I’m concerned, Jonah Hex is the first stunner of the summer.  Adapted from the DC Comic after the same name, Hex, stars Josh Brolin, as the film’s namesake, Megan Fox, as his love interest Lilah, and the great John Malkovich, as Quentin Turnbull – Hex’s arch nemesis.  Hex was directed by Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears A Who, 2008), and written by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who despite a disagreement cited as ‘creative differences,’ with distributor Warner Brothers, (and thank god for this) seem to have gone balls out for this story.

Jonah Hex tells the tale of a Civil War veteran whose family is murdered out of revenge by his Confederate commanding officer – Quentin Turnbull – after Hex disobeyed an order that resulted in the death of Turnbull’s son.  Hex is hung on a cross and forced to watch as his family burns while Turnbull sears his brand into Hex’s right cheek to remind him, for the rest of his life, of the man who took everything from him.  Turnbull and his henchmen leave Hex for dead, hanging on the cross, where he is eventually rescued and brought back from the brink of death by a band of the Crow Indians.  This bit of expositional information is provided to the audience via a brutal and gritty, yet beautifully done motion comic sequence and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
However, Jonah Hex isn’t the same man.  His close encounter with the other side has changed him in several ways.  He says of himself he’s become,” a man possessed with the curse of knowin’ the other side.”  He’s been endowed with sort of a sixth sense for when death is near in combat – kind of a cowboy – Spidey Sense – and he can bring even long-dead bodies back to life to talk with them and glean information.  Also, due to the nature of his near-death experience and the help of the Crow Indians, he has gained a connection with animals, including his horse, a mangy but clever and loyal canine sidekick, and especially crows.

The crow becomes Hex’s symbol in a way; it was the animal who guided him through the Underworld and now it accompanies him wherever he goes, which provides the opportunity to exhibit some unique and powerful cinematographic images.  One shot in specific – an expansive wide shot of the cemetery where Turnbull’s son is buried – still stands out in my mind.  It’s the middle of the night and Hex is about to exhume his long-dead friend’s remains in order to talk with him.  Just before he starts to dig, the camera cuts to the wide shot of the cemetery as Hex bangs his shovel on a tombstone and sends an entire flock of hidden crows scattering into the night sky.

After being healed by the Crow Indians, Hex spends the next several years hunting down bad men with a determination akin to death itself, while his reputation grew and he became regarded as something more than a man.  Soon, Hex’s years of merciless bounty hunting with his new-found abilities catch up to him when the U.S. Government propositions him to hunt down the presumed dead Quentin Turnbull, who has continued to fight as a Confederate Secessionist and has now become a domestic terrorist bent on destroying the fledgling United States before its two-hundredth birthday.

With this new information, Hex, who had been floundering in a sea of self destruction and violence, is given new purpose and a noble mission – to stop Turnbull from using his ‘Nation Killer Weapon’ and save thousands of lives.  He accepts his mission with a new attitude, saying, “People can believe what they want, but they got to decide if they’re gonna do what’s right.”
At this point Hex visits an old friend – a freed slave who also happens to be a weapons genius – and arms himself with one of the film’s coolest props – the Crossbow Dynamite Launcher – in preparation for his clash with Turnbull, but in his haste to get revenge, Hex is almost killed by one of Turnbull’s henchmen and (with the help of his faithful horse and dog) has to be brought back to health by the Crow Indians again.  This episode shows the audience the torment Hex’s body and soul go through to remain alive and in one of the film’s most vivid images, Hex actually wretches up a live crow, which promptly flies off into the sky.  I’m not sure whether to interpret this as a reaffirmation of his connection to the crow or not, but I think it makes more sense than seeing it as Hex’s soul being absolved of the dark side of Vengeance that had plagued him for so long.  Either way, the healing scene is brutal and visceral and it serves its purpose well by getting the viewer pumped for the upcoming battle.

Upon his second return from the brink of death, Hex again tracks down Turnbull and attempts to defeat him and rescue the captive Lilah.  The final battle between Hex and Turnbull features the devastating and awesome Nation Killer Cannon and is played out on dual planes of the story – one in the color saturated, surreal realm of Hex’s tormented mind, and one in reality – on and in the guts of a Civil War Era Ironclad warship.  This fight scene was extremely well done and the dual strands of story they cut back and forth between added a level of suspense and drama that is rarely seen in action movies these days.  The final fight plays out and the film ends in a somewhat predictable manner with Hex refusing an offer from the President to be the Sheriff of the United States to live out his days with Lilah instead and I had absolutely no problem with that.  There is no other way the movie should have ended.  I don’t care if it’s cliché.

I’ve never read the Jonah Hex comic.  In fact, until I wrote this, I had never even seen any of the artwork, so I cannot tell you if the film did justice to the comic.  I can only tell you if I liked it.  I did – very much.  In fact, the only thing I thought there wasn’t enough of was the amazing weaponry Hex utilized.  There was only one scene when he used the dual horse-mounted Gatling guns and only one scene with the Crossbow Dynamite Launchers.  I would’ve liked to see more of those two props, but I was still totally satisfied with the amount of action, as I’m sure any other fan of the genre would be.  Other than that, everything was perfect.

The director, Hayward, paid close attention to the mise-en-scene throughout the entire film and it truly helped to convey the dark and surreal theme.  The make-up is fantastic, Brolin and Malkovich’s performances are top-notch, Megan Fox is hot, the action hits hard and heavy, and most importantly in this age of unnecessarily long films, Jonah Hex is short.  At eighty-one minutes long, it grabs you and goes and doesn’t stop or deviate from the story until Hex has gotten his revenge.  I found it extremely refreshing and at a PG-13 rating, everyone can go see it.
However, I think my favorite technique used by Hayward was the decision to use hand held cameras when filming shots with Hex in the frame.  The shots are noticeably shaky, but not to the point of being distracting – just enough to set the shots of Hex apart from the shots of anyone else and lend a sense of turbulence to his character in a very eloquent and simple way.
Although, the fact that Hayward apparently asked Heavy Metal powerhouse, Mastodon, and Oscar Nominated Composer, Mario Beltrami to compose and record the original score for the film just might have been more important.  The score is thundering and epic and was recorded on the fly while the band watched footage of the film.  It adds a dimension of depth that makes the film just that much better and for a fun little fact, Mastodon’s guitarist/vocalist, Brent Hinds, has an extremely brief cameo as a Union soldier about fifteen minutes into the film.  Don’t blink or you’ll miss it!

So far this summer, I’ve been disappointed week after week with lackluster pseudo summer blockbusters like Ironman 2 and The A-Team and Robin Hood, but Jonah Hex stopped that trend dead in its tracks.  It’s a short and sweet Action-Western set at a very interesting time in our nation’s history and every aspect of this movie is spot-on to satisfy.  Go see Jonah Hex and I’m sure you’ll have a blast! (pun intended)

I give Jonah Hex a strong 5 “Gnarly Holes In The Face” out of 5.

by Ian O. Fordyce

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