Sunday 12 September 2010

Once Upon A Time In The Hex

Jonah Hex 2010 US
Directed by Jimmy Hayward
Screening at UK cinemas now

A fistful of spoilers beyond this point!

One of my fondest memories as a child growing up in the late sixties/early seventies is flicking through and endlessly rereading old issues of DC comics such as Superman, Batman and Shazam! (with one magic word...). And of course, just as much as the stories inside these well thumbed tomes would be all those marvellous adverts for products and services which were rarely available over here in the UK.

“Man are you skinny?” Lot’s of people my age knew that, if you were, then you’d need to send off for some books from Charlie Atlas... just as sure as we knew that “You get a big delight, With every Bite, of Hostess Fruit Twinkies”... even if we’d never tasted the damned things over here.

And then, of course, there were the adverts for comics which appeared a little less frequently at our local comic’s stand (dedicated comic shops like Dark They Were And Golden Eyed and Forbidden Planet were just around the corner but weren’t quite with us yet). Comics like The Shadow and Jonah Hex.

Now I’ve long laid to rest my debt to The Shadow having since read a few of the pulps (which I hold were much less intelligently and stylishly written than their nearest rival, Doc Savage), heard episodes of Orson Welle’s radio show, watched various serials and movie versions of varying quality... and of course read some of the comics which were actually quite well put together. But I’ve never read a Jonah Hex comic... that ghost is still to be laid to rest. So please bear that in mind when you read the following review... I can’t vouch for its authenticity as an adaptation of said comic.

That aside, I really wasn’t expecting much from this big screen version of Jonah Hex... simply because the reviews I’d skimmed were unanimously underwhelming. I’m pleased to say that this was maybe the best attitude to go in with because... well, I was very pleasantly surprised because I do like spaghetti westerns (and the odd revisionist western... the odder the better) and this is what the makers of Jonah Hex have produced here. So I was well pleased with the final product... although it does have its problems, which I’ll go into later.

From the start I was hooked... Jonah’s wife and child are burned alive in front of him by evil baddie John Malkovich, who then brands Hex’s face and leaves him to die or live as fate decides. Although not exactly the same in content, the mood for me was very evocative of what I remember from the opening of Death Rides A Horse, so score one for this movie right there.

Then the media immediately switches to stylised cartoon, presumably in homage to one of the past Jonah Hex artists, and it gets all the origin and back story out of the way in the first five minutes. Well done Mr. Screenwriter! At last we don’t have to have a long, drawn out origin story taking up two thirds of the film and ending with a denouement that ties in to said origin. This is a big weakness of comic book movies today. When you are watching old serials, do they ever waste time exploring the origins? Heck no. Batman and Robin just got in there and beat everyone up... they were crime fighters... ‘nuff said. The Shadow was The Shadow. He knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men... and that was enough. You know he knows, now get into the story. So unlike most modern day superhero movies where even the villains get origin stories... you get all you need to know about Mr. Hex’s supernatural powers from this short cartoon sequence. Now we can get on to it...

The sequence cuts back into photography after the title of the movie comes up with Hex, now a bounty killer (I’d say bounty hunter but in the spaghetti westerns this movie is trying so hard to stylishly emulate, they always called them bounty killers), trailing dead bodies of his recent “catches” behind his horse in much the same way as Klaus Kinski would have in the excellent The Great Silence. And this sequence is a real homage to the spaghetti westerns of the past. Hex wears a cavalry uniform so already he looks like iconic character Django (and it really wouldn’t surprise me if the original Jonah Hex comic wasn’t pretty much inspired by the Django character as played by Franco Nero). Then you get the whole Yojimbo/Clint Eastwood western confrontation model where the lone guy confronts several in a shoot out with a comment made about the number of coffins. And then you get the classic, spaghetti western legacy, I’ve-got-an-unexpected-hidden-piece-of-hardware-for-a-weapon-and-I’m-going-to-kill-you-all moment where this film takes great care to top Django while still paying homage to it. In the first (of many, many, many) of the Django movies, Franco Nero goes for the coffin he’s been dragging around with him and pulls out a big Gatling gun to mow down untold numbers of the enemy with (as Arnold Schwarzennegger’s character makes apt visual reference to in a scene towards the end of Terminator 3). Here Josh Brolin, who does an excellent if cliched performance as Jonah (and I’d say it needs to be cliched to make this larger than life stuff work), flips up two big Gatling guns from the side of his horse and starts blasting away... of course, the horse would be deaf but who cares, it’s a great sequence. Maybe they could do a sequel called Deaf Rides The Horse.

From here on in the film is set up right and the spaghetti/revisionist tone permeates the movie all the way through. Lots of in-yer-face, snarling close-ups, perhaps not as stylishly handled as Leone but the intent is there. More odd weapons... in the form of hand held pistol crossbows that fire sticks of dynamite! And some weird kind of “pseudo-cameos” by people who look like more famous spaghetti counterparts of old - most notably a weapons inventor (Jonah’s equivalent of Q in the Bond films) who gives the same presence as Woody Strode and a guard who’s done up to provide the same kind of “recognition hit” as Bud Spencer! Great stuff and a joy to watch these classic tropes of the genre being lovingly invoked in a modern film.

On the downside, the editing is a little too modern for the kind of movies the writing and visual design is trying to aspire to... but that’s just modern movies I guess. The soundtrack too is a little off. Not to complain too much because it’s excellent and you can hear it trying hard to be evocative of the great genre scores of composers like Morricone, Nicolai and Bacalov... but with it’s synthesiser and rock shadowing it feels a little more Young Guns than Seven Guns For the McGregors. Still it serves the movie quite well to a great extent... just would have been nice to have a more classic musical homage to lift it at those points when something happens that highlight the inherent machismo of the genre. Probably would have been rejected by the suits if it had though.

Another problem is Megan Fox. She’s excellent in her role but she’s hardly in it and her inclusion in the final sequence makes no sense. How does the bad guy's henchman (played Billy the Kid style by Michael Fassbender) even know of her existence to be able to kidnap her and use her against Hex? I think she’s only in about three scenes in the whole movie and needed to be in this a little more I think (regardless of the fact that the majority of spaghetti westerns did not have a strong female presence). The whole last quarter of an hour and its unsatisfying denouement smacks of mishandling and studio re-editing. I don’t know what the story is there but I suspect this is a highly tampered with film and it’s a shame because getting there has been great fun.

A third problem is a little over-explanation alluding to Jonah's origins on certain points in flashback from the main narrative which touch upon things we’ve already picked up from the cartoon sequence. But these explanations are mercifully brief and don’t jar against the flow of the movie.

All in all though I’d say, if you don’t mind a movie with a weak ending, then take a look at this nice piece of escapist movie making. And if you’re a fan of the spaghetti western in general... definitely ride on down to your local cineplex or DVD store to see it because, whether you love it or hate it, you need to have an opinion about it.

And if you don’t have an opinion of it... Duck, You Sucker!

1 comment:

  1. Well I've just seen a copy of this film and I really, really wanted to like it, but at 73 mins of actual story time, I know that there is an elusive directors cut somewhere in the ether, better bring it out soon.