Opening the same day as Toy Story 3 and an alternative for those with a preference for their movies dark, no sugar instead, Jonah Hex is likewise a blast from the past as it storms into theaters with a vengeance in more ways than one. But in no way cuddly cowboy Woody, Josh Brolin as the title surly supernatural gunslinger is a very different kind of settler dodging bullets across the wild west, or rather deep south, settling old scores and new ones that may not have even arrived, in some as yet unfathomable future space.
Shattering long entrenched cowboy mythologies while invoking sinister new ones, Jonah Hex first appeared as part of the DC Comics war series during the Vietnam era. And though that conflict has usually been cited as the first defeat for this country, that claim can actually be made a century prior to those years, by the rarely discussed Civil War rebel soldiers of the Confederacy. Who share many of the same psychological battle scars as the Vietnam vets.
Oddly enough, it would take a comic book to bring to light those similarly demoralized circumstances of conscripted Civil War poor dirt farmer defeated grunts who barely knew what they were fighting for. And found themselves on the wrong side of a liberation struggle, in one case against slavery, and in more recent times a resistance to foreign invasion and occupation.
And in keeping with the perpetually mythologized US cowboy conventions though subversively updated, Jonah Hex, as originally conceived by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga and now directed in its cinematic incarnation by Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears A Who!), rides into town so to speak back and forth across centuries and war genres. And as a kind of undead born again vigilante, with an aversion to varmints and governments of all stripes alike.
When we meet up with Hex, he’s a disgruntled Confederate vet loner seemingly in the grip of post-traumatic stress syndrome following defeat in the Civil War. Blamed for the death of a fellow soldier by the man’s thuggish dad Turnbull (John Malkovich), Hex watches helplessly as the homicidal brute slaughters his wife and son, and disfigures his face with a hot cattle brand in what might be termed the opposite of a facelift.
Apparently dispatched to the afterlife briefly and then back again, Hex discovers an inherent talent for visiting graves and awakening the dead when in search of useful information, while tracking down Turnbull as a bounty hunter simultaneously resisting any taming by the US military. Though the fugitive career criminal has his mind on other matters at the moment, sabotaging the occupying forces of the Union Army in the south by perfecting a premature dirty bomb, when not staging train robberies with hooded suicide bombers.
Meanwhile, Megan Fox appears intermittently as far too little seen or heard sassy saloon wench and pistol packing hooker Lilah, and may have been based on the Jonah Hex graphics saddle goddess, Tallulah Black. Who in print was Hex’s lover, and would eventually become a bounty hunter herself.
With an abbreviated running time of eighty minutes, too short to delve deeply enough into the dramatic material at hand, Jonah Hex zigzags between past and future episodes in the life of its seething protagonist, as if unable to make up its mind as to a clear path to lead this film on the way to the final showdown. Which provides a tangy taste of this defiant anti-hero, as opposed to a fully satisfying encounter. Though the inaugural Fourth Of July shock and awe instigated outlaw bash back then as conceived during the movie’s climactic fantasy counter-attack, lays out a supremely strange legendary origin of that holiday’s traditional yearly fireworks display.
3 [out of 4] stars