Unlikely to be remembered as one of Warner Bros.’ more illustrious DC Comics properties, “Jonah Hex” casts a weak spell. An ultra-stylish attempt to spin the gunslinging bounty hunter from a little-known 1970s comicbook series into the stuff of movie myth, this supernatural neo-Western actioner earns some distinction by virtue of its grungy post-Civil War settings and offbeat casting. But “Jonah” was a risky proposition to begin with, and the film’s noisy, slam-bang approach and lack of imagination in all nonvisual departments will keep it from rounding up a fresh generation of thrill-seekers.
It doesn’t inspire confidence to discover that the filmmakers went to the trouble of mounting a costly and elaborate production to introduce an unsung antihero to a overcrowded comicbook-movie market, only to end the pic at a mere 81 minutes (including closing credits). While the door is left open for a sequel, it’s hard to imagine a studio or an audience getting terribly excited about the prospect after such a numbing pyrotechnic display in service of a perfunctory revenge saga — one that happens to be set on the troubled eve of America’s centennial.
Amid a series of rapid dissolves and crude 2D animation, the prologue finds Confederate soldier Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) strung up and forced to watch as his wife and child are murdered by his commanding officer, Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich, adding to his gallery of one-note evildoers). Fanatically devoted to the South’s cause, Turnbull proceeds to brand his initials into Jonah’s cheek, leaving a painful, permanent reminder of the soldier’s inner torment.
Years later, Jonah has become a bounty hunter, a brooding, embittered loner who does most of his talking through the barrel of an 1873 Colt (or via the Gatling guns conveniently attached to his horse) and reserves his sole interpersonal exchanges for a fetching young prostitute, Lilah (Megan Fox). But when Jonah learns that Turnbull, presumed dead but very much alive, is planning to launch a cataclysmic attack on the Union, he makes it his mission to save the nation and settle the score.
This gives rise to the tale’s most striking narrative innovation, as Jonah gleans key information by communicating with the dead — a gift he demonstrates in a series of ghoulish yet oddly poignant interludes with talking corpses (expertly rendered by the f/x and makeup teams). It’s one of the few memorable touches in a picture that — despite numerous opportunities for clever historical revisionism and visual artistry (some of which are realized in Tom Meyer’s sun-drenched production design and Michael Wilkinson’s spot-on costumes) — ultimately favors the expedient and the explosive at every turn.
This should come as little surprise, given that “Jonah Hex” was scripted by Brian Neveldine and Mark Taylor (the writing-directing duo behind “Gamer” and the “Crank” movies), who were originally slated to direct before exiting the project, citing creative differences. While the helming reins were handed over to animation maven Jimmy Hayward (“Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!”), it’s the signature of Neveldine & Taylor (as they’re billed here) that remains most evident in the film’s shotgun wedding of oater iconography and videogame aesthetics — all smash edits, feverish cross-cutting, color-saturated lensing and a thunderous heavy-metal score — as well as its fusion of old-fashioned artillery and futuristic weaponry.
Given the relative paucity of Westerns on the current moviegoing landscape, it’s somewhat dispiriting to encounter a movie that would painstakingly erect a facade of 19th-century mining towns, military forts and runaway locomotives (pic was lensed primarily in Louisiana), only to blow every one of those sets to yawn-inducing smithereens — all presided over by Malkovich’s leering megalomaniac, hamming it up like some kind of Southern Bond villain (“Ahhhm the detonat-uh!”).
Brolin has shown a natural affinity for material with a Western bent (whether it’s “No Country for Old Men” or, presumably, the Coen brothers’ upcoming “True Grit” remake), and he’s well cast as the tortured central figure, even if the script never allows him the time or the scale to make Jonah Hex much more than an anguished character sketch. Thesp is forced to grunt and scowl through one side of his mouth, thanks to that convincingly gruesome prosthetic scar, which makes some of his gravelly voiceover unintelligible.
While Fox is adequate as a whore packing plenty of heat in her corset, the unusual supporting cast is an embarrassment of underutilized riches: Michael Fassbender makes a memorable impression as Turnbull’s nasty No. 2, while Michael Shannon is almost unrecognizable as a fiendish carnival impresario. Elsewhere, Aidan Quinn, Wes Bentley and Will Arnett (in a rare noncomedic role) register far too fleetingly.