‘Jonah Hex’: Dead Man Walking, By Kurt Loder

The venerable comic-book cowboy comes to life ... sort of.

[movie id="358297"]Jonah Hex[/movie] is about as anti- as a hero can get. It’s not just his chewed-up cowboy hat, his bullet-riddled duster and his perma-surly disposition. It’s the melted skin running down one side of his face and the ugly hole torn in the flesh next to his mouth (which makes whiskey-drinking a messy enterprise, but not — as we see just before he shoots up a barroom full of bad guys — an impossible one).

In cooking down 38 years’ worth of DC comics for “Jonah Hex,” the new movie, director Jimmy Hayward and his writers have produced a lumpy soup of western action and supernatural shenanigans, heavily spiced with narrative confusion. The story leaps back and forth in time, and while the picture is sometimes funny, possibly intentionally, at some points it’s anybody’s guess what’s going on.

In playing Jonah, Josh Brolin is stuck with a character whose facial constriction reduces him to little more than a walking bad attitude — he’s like Clint Eastwood’s old Man with No Name in the Sergio Leone westerns but without the warmth.

The time is just after the Civil War (at least when it’s not during the Civil War). We learn that Jonah was framed for the betrayal of his Confederate battle unit, which resulted in the death of his friend, Jeb Turnbull (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Jeb’s demented father, Quentin (John Malkovich in full cuckoo mode), retaliated by killing Jonah’s wife and son, and disfiguring his face with a red-hot branding iron. Now (or sometimes now) Jonah roams the West as a bad-ass bounty hunter, his only love connection a beautiful whore named Lilah (Megan Fox). When Ulysses S. Grant (Aidan Quinn), president of the newly reunited States, learns that Turnbull is creating a “super-weapon” that will be a “nation-killer,” he recruits Jonah to stop him.

Our battered hero is well-equipped to do so. After a close call with death some years back, Jonah was left with one foot in the spirit world; and so while he spends much of the movie being shot and beaten, he appears to be unkillable. He’s attended by a pack of hellhounds (“I wouldn’t try to pet ‘em if I was you”) and has the useful gift of bringing dead men back to life with a touch of his hand. (“I’m sorry I killed you,” he tells one corpse, after raising him from the grave. Says the dead guy: “I’d better be getting back under ground.”) Jonah also has a taste for esoteric weaponry — saddle-mounted Gatling guns, dynamite-firing crossbow pistols — and a talent for dodging bullets by simply leaning back a bit to let them fly by (past our madly rolling eyes). The lovely Lilah is no slouch in the slick department, either: When she and Jonah are handcuffed to an overhead rod, the cuffs suddenly snap free, and she brandishes a lock pick. “My mama didn’t raise no fool,” she says. (To which we reply, “What the hell … ?”)

Despite the picture’s wall-to-wall uproar — train-jackings, bullet storms, incessant detonations — there’s little excitement to it. The action is furious from the outset and remains at that level throughout, increasingly diluting its intended effect. And the dialogue, which I take to be satirical, never quite meshes with the film’s heavy violence. Like its half-dead protagonist, the movie never comes completely alive.

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