Monday, June 21, 2010

Susan speaks out on Jonah Hex

Susan Hillwig, she of Weird Western Quarterly and sometimes alias of Jonah Hex, wrote her review of Jonah Hex, tossed it into an email for me to read and I knew I HAD to share it with everyone else. Here, for your reading pleasure, Susan Hillwig:

Been hearin’ the rumors for months now, crazy talk ‘bout how he’d changed so drastically, how he wasn’t the same person.  But me and him, we go back a ways, and I figured the only way to get the truth was to go seek out the man himself.  So I met up with him in a darkened theatre, and we had good long talk for about 80-odd minutes.

And let me reassure you, friends, that Jonah Hex (in the guise of Josh Brolin) may look and act a bit different than what we’re used to, but on the inside, he’s the same man we’ve known for over 38 years.

It was kind of a shock, in a way.  Everything I’ve been hearing had lowered my expectations to near-zero, so I thought I’d be groaning under my breath for most of the film.  I will concede that those who don’t know the character at all might not like it because, as those that do know him are aware, Hex is not an easy character to love: he’s dirty, he’s surly, he’d sooner spit in your eye than offer a kind word...and I’d say that Brolin nails every bit of that attitude.  Unfortunately, movie franchises are not usually based around guys like that, so I reckon the critics are a little taken aback by what they saw, but as a Hex-nut, I was pleased.  He does show a soft edge here and there, but only when appropriate, and that’s not out-of-character for him either...Hell, I was damn-near moved at one point because, once again, Brolin nailed it.  Either he or the writers studied Hex real close, because I can’t think of one line coming out of his mouth that rang false.

Hex’s backstory took a few bad lumps, though, which is understandable: in this knee-jerk, politically-correct age, no studio would likely let ritual scarring by angry Apaches hit the big screen.  So instead, the honor of administering it goes to Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich), but don’t worry, kids, they still manage to work in a red-hot tomahawk to the face later on, much to my surprise.  There’s also the garbling of the Turnbull/Hex feud, taking away the element of Hex’s accidental betrayal of his unit and making it deliberate, but with good reason, as Turnbull was steering them towards wholesale slaughter as opposed to simple battlefield tactics.  The full details behind the betrayal are never made clear, but they do say that Hex shot Turnbull’s son Jeb, so on that count at least, Hex is guilty, and this leads directly to Turnbull’s eye-for-an-eye vengeance.  Another alteration on that, as Hex is given an Indian wife and son (and going by the kid’s age, I’d say this marriage predates the War).  Sadly, their only reason for existence seems to be as sacrificial lambs and possibly a tenuous link to Hex’s brief Indian upbringing (if we miraculously get a sequel, I’d like to see that explored).  Luckily, those Indians are also the ones who pull Hex back from the brink of death after Turnbull shatters his life.

And that brings us to a major change in Hex’s character: he talks to dead people.  Before going into the movie, I psyched myself out by saying that Brolin’s Hex was nutters and he imagined this ability, but nope, he’s really doing it...and Lord help me, Brolin makes it believable.  In his hands, talking to the dead becomes simply another tool in Hex’s arsenal, and he treats it as such.  For the record, we only see him use it three times: the first establishes the parameters of how it works, the second provides us with a scene that lays out a remarkable depth of feeling for Hex that I really don’t want to spoil, and the third is over with lickety-split but it’s so creative and mad-dog mean that you know the comic-book Hex would do it too if he could.  I still think they shouldn’t have saddled an all-too-human character with a supernatural trait, but they made me accept it within the confines of this flick, so I’m okay with it.

As for other oddities...well, some work and some don’t.  The acid-spitting weirdo in the pit-fighting scene seems to have no purpose but to up the crazy factor a bit (though the conversation between Hex and Tom Wopat’s character happening just above the pit-fight works well).  Hex’s specialty weapons look like stuff he might consider using if he could actually get his hands on them (though that horse of his must be very well-trained to tolerate the noise of twin Gatling guns like that!), and Turnbull’s “nation-killer” gun is the ultimate in steampunk, reminding me of the Nazis’ actual “Big Bertha” gun in a way.  I give the writers props for working in Eli Whitney (and accurately mentioning that he’s responsible for modern manufacturing as well as the cotton gin...both of which are inadvertent causes of the Civil War, by the by), but for the life of me, I can’t think of what in blazes those flaming dragonballs the cannon spews out are supposed to be made of!  Oh, and I take points off for giving the thing Capitol building-shaped crosshairs...that’s just plain silly.

I suppose I should take a second to review the other characters in this flick.  John Malkovich does a good job as Turnbull, and though he’s more physically active than his comic-book counterpart, I noticed that, as with Brolin/Hex, the attitude is the same: he spends more time playing mastermind and directing others to do his dirty work than he does getting his own hands dirty.  Even the way he talks, all blustery and spelling everything out, conforms to the original character.  Megan Fox’s character of Lilah doesn’t get as much screen-time as the ads would have you believe, but she does a decent job when she’s there.  The age difference between Brolin and Fox is a mite distracting, but since I remember Hex one time bedded down with a gal half his age, I could excuse it.  What surprised me about Lilah was how well she handled her weapons...but since I knew what her full name was before it was said on film, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all.  The biggest pleasure for me was watching Michael Fassbender as Turnbull’s Irish crony Burke.  This guy was just wicked fun every time he was on screen, and a real threat to Hex.  Plus he made me grin when he kept calling Hex “little flower” as a put-down.

Now to address two problems that keep coming up in other reviews I’ve seen: the length and the editing.  Honestly, I didn’t feel that the movie clocked in too short, though I could’ve sat through at least another hour of it and not complained.  Not once did I look at my watch, which I normally do at least once during a movie, so if they can keep my eyes on the screen and not on the time, then that’s a plus.  As for editing, it doesn’t get choppy for me until the end fight (I swear there’s one split-second scene that they showed twice within maybe five minutes, but that might’ve been my eyes playing tricks), but where I can see what might be off-putting for some folks in the interspersing of the actual fight between Hex and Turnbull alongside a “internal” fight of those same guys on a field of red clay (which also pops up here and there throughout the film).  If I understand from other sources, the red clay sequence was supposed to be the original end fight, but they nixed it in favor of steampunk cannons.  Luckily, somebody found a way to work it back in that’s artsy as Hell, and I loved it.  Personally, I could probably spend a paragraph dissecting the meaning of the red clay sequence, but I’m trying to be brief here.

All in all, I had a good time, and best of all, I don’t think they insulted Jonah Hex one bit.  That was my biggest concern from the moment they announced there would be a movie: the notion that they’d toss any old junk together and call it good because he’s a lower-tier character.  There are a few bumps in the road that I could’ve done without, but I’d go see it again, and I hope the inevitable DVD comes with so much extra stuff that they need 5 disks to pack it all in.

Now I just have to find a way to explain this flick to anybody that isn’t a Hex-nut...


SallyP said...

That's a good review, goldurnit! It's nice to read a review by someone who has actually HEARD of Jonah Hex beforehand.

Susan said...

Thanks, Sally. I'm really thinking that's why all the reviews are negative: you've got to know Hex to enjoy it. I don't think I've got fanboy-goggles on either, because it's been two days now and I still think they did a decent job, so much so that I might go again just to take in anything I missed. This is opposed to when I saw Wolverine last year, when my feelings started to turn to the negative before the movie even finished...yep, even seeing Hugh Jackman's butt couldn't salvage my feelings for the flick.

Dwayne "the canoe guy" said...

One thing that I forgot to add, did ANYONE catch the part where Jonah Hex was telling his son that comic books would rot his brain. My wife kept elbowing me in the ribs during that part.

Susan said...

I caught that thinly-veiled reference, yeah. Something to the effect of "I can feel your brain shrinking right under my hand." Dime novels were the comics of their day, so tossing that in was fun.