Monday, October 15, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: J is for Jonah Hex (2010)

As the American Civil War rages, a group of Confederate cavalry led by a Quentin Turnbull wage a campaign of terror behind the Union lines, creating all kinds of havoc. And like fellow guerilla fighter, William Quantrill, who in August, 1863, led the notorious raid into Lawrence, Kansas, which resulted in a terrible massacre of non-combatants, Turnbull (Malkovich) also started attacking civilian targets in an effort to spread fear and demoralization in the North. But when he ordered his men to attack and burn down a hospital, one of his Sergeants, Jonah Hex (Brolin), refused the order on moral grounds, which resulted in the death of Turnbull’s only son and the capture of most of his brigade, which we can kinda sorta piece together through this jumbled montage cum flashback while fording across a stream of consciousness prologue. (Not gonna make this easy, are ya, movie?)

And so, when the war ended, as this flashbackamegeddon continues, Turnbull tracked this perceived traitor down and takes his revenge by killing the man’s wife and son by burning them alive in front of the restrained Hex, whom Turnbull left alive, saying they were now even in the dead family department. However, Turnbull, with the help of Burke (Fassbender), his chief enforcer, gives Hex a permanent reminder of who took everything away from him by branding his initials into the captive victim’s face. With that, Turnbull and his party vacate, leaving Hex still tied to a cross. And there he sat, mostly dead, until his eventual rescue by a tribe of Crow Indians, to whom his wife once belonged, whose spiritual medicine bring him back to life in a fairly nifty animated sequence. But there’s a catch: being once mostly dead, Hex now has the power to commune with the deceased by temporarily resurrecting them -- "the curse of knowing the other side." But he can only animate and talk to them while making physical contact, and only for a limited time before they are incinerated by hellfire and reduced to ash. Why? Bad peyote maybe? Sure, why not. Fine. Lets roll with that.

A recovered Hex then sets out to track down Turnbull -- but not before using a heated up tomahawk to sear Turnbull’s initials off of his face, resulting in more damage and scarring, including a large hole in his right cheek, making his own mouth a permanent dribble glass. However, turns out Turnbull had already died in a massive hotel fire. And so, to satiate his thirst for vengeance, Hex turns to bounty hunting, spending the next decade using his new found supernatural powers rounding up wanted criminals, dead or alive -- but mostly dead, with an assist from a man named Smith (Reddick), who provides an outlandish arsenal that includes twin horse-mounted Gatling guns and missile firing pistols, earning Hex a legendary reputation as a man you do not mess with or double-cross or you’ll wind up dead -- and rather ridiculously dead at that.

Meantime, as the movie proper finally begins, turns out Turnbull wasn’t quite dead after all, staging his own demise to free himself from Federal scrutiny to execute a mad scheme to collect all the components of some experimental city-killing super cannon designed by Eli Whitney (-- just roll with it), which proved so devastating President Grant (Quinn) forbade its usage, ordered it dismantled and spread to the four winds. But when Grant gets word parts of this massive cannon were stolen in a brazen train robbery, resulting in massive casualties when all the passenger cars were blown up to eliminate the witnesses, both he and his staff feel it has to be the work of Turnbull. And with his penchant for civilian targets, they need to find and stop this terrorist before he can strike an even bigger catastrophic blow -- most likely during the upcoming centennial celebration. And Grant knows there’s only one man cut out for that treacherous job, Jonah Hex, and sends a Lieutenant Grass (Arnett) to round up the notorious bounty hunter and inform him he’s just been drafted.

Currently wanted for the murder of three dubious lawmen from Shithole, Texas, who tried to double-cross him on a bounty only to wind up ridiculously dead, courtesy of those Gatling guns, Hex is currently hiding out at a brothel with a whore named Lilah (Fox); with whom he is apparently well acquainted both in and out of the sack. And after a night of connecting the bullet hole dots on Hex’s body and other assorted nonsense, Grass and his men find them the following morning and avoid a deadly confrontation when he reveals Turnbull is still alive. Now with Hex’s full attention, Grass also says they have -- well, had a prisoner, who was involved in the train hijack but died during his interrogation without revealing anything. This doesn’t stop Hex from asking him a few more questions once he’s resurrected the prisoner, getting the name of the man who recruited him before sending him on to hell.

And so, Hex heads to South Carolina, where he tracks down this recruiter; an ex-Confederate Colonel named Slocum, who is attending some kind of proto-AMA metahuman deathmatch in a large pavilion. And as these two men watch as a large bruiser is defeated down in the pit and gets his head eaten by a snake-man with a hinged jaw (-- I’ll assume this is some distant relative of the DC villain, Copperhead), Slocum (Wopat) refuses to betray Turnbull and flippantly suggests Hex go ask his dead son, whom Hex got killed, remember, where his father has holed up.

Not a terrible idea, thinks Hex, who kills Slocum’s men, tosses the man himself into the pit to get his head bit off, too, and then picks up a dog on the way out when he also kills all of the mongrel’s mistreating handlers. And this same dog then follows Hex all the way to a Confederate cemetery near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he unearths and reanimates Jeb Turnbull (Morgan). First, Hex apologies to this revenant; sorry he got killed, but not sorry for the circumstances that led up to it, meaning his refusal to burn the hospital. And after his initial outburst, leading to a fairly hilarious fight, being dead seems to have mellowed Jeb out considerably, who agrees his father must be stopped before he kills more innocent people. Seems Jeb has been watching both Hex and Turnbull from beyond the grave and reveals his father is currently running his operation out of the not-so-abandoned Fort Resurrection. Hex then releases Jeb before he burns up, but not before he gets a final warning from his old friend, who says not to get himself killed anytime soon. Seems they talk about Hex a lot down there in hell, and the Devil himself is looking forward to punishing the one that got away...

Making his debut in All-Star Western #10 (March, 1972), the comic book character, Jonah Hex, was the creation of writer John Albano and artist Tony DeZuniga. An outlaw anti-hero based loosely on the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood, artist DeZuniga would later recall how he first came up with the idea for the character’s uniquely scarred face. "When I went to my doctor, I saw this beautiful chart of the human anatomy. And I saw the anatomy of the figure was split in half, straight from head to toe. Half his skeleton was there, half his nerves and muscles.” And the rest is comic book history.

All-Star Western would morph into Weird Western Tales two issues later, which Hex headlined until issue #38, when the character was granted his own solo title, Jonah Hex, which ran for 92 issues from 1977 through 1985 with DeZuniga providing most of the art while Michael Fleisher took over as the series’ main writer. And as the issues progressed, we got bits and pieces of the notorious bounty hunter’s background and could begin to piece his origin together:

When he was 13, Hex was sold to a band of Apache by his alcoholic father. There, he was treated as a slave until the boy saved the chief from a mountain lion, was officially adopted, and became a full member of the tribe. When he turned 16, Hex was sent out into the desert with his half-brother, Noh-Tante, to pass a rite of manhood, where he was betrayed over the mutual affection for a girl named White Fawn and left for dead. But an old trapper found him and nursed the boy back to health. When he tried to return to his people and confront his half-brother, Hex found their camp long deserted.

After serving a stint in the Confederate Cavalry, Hex would run into his old tribe and the treacherous Noh Tante again in the classic Mark of the Demon arc, which reveals how Hex got his scarred face. For when he tells his adoptive father Noh-Tante tried to kill him, these accusations are denied. And so, to settle this the chief decides his two sons must go through a trial by combat to get to the truth. But Noh-Tante’s treachery continues as he sabotages Hex’s tomahawk -- the only weapon allowed, which breaks, forcing him to use his knife to kill his half-brother. And for breaking the rules of this sacred ritual, Hex is sentenced to be branded with the “mark of the demon,” courtesy of a white-hot tomahawk to the face, and exiled under penalty of death. Years later, while trying to track down and rescue a white woman who was abducted by the Apache, he once more comes across his tribe. Alas, the statute of limitations on his exile were still in effect, and White Fawn is killed while trying to help Hex escape, forcing him to kill his step-father and most of his people.

And as the series drew to a close, the tale of Jonah Hex took a weird turn with the advent of Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985), DC Comics’ first attempt to clean up some glaring continuity issues that I couldn’t even begin to explain, which saw the character time-snatched from the wild west and deposited into a post-apocalyptic future in Hex, a bizarre take on The Road Warrior (1981), where the character traded in his horse and stetson for a motorcycle and radiation proof armor, which ran for 19 issues from 1985 through 1987. And while that series was certainly … odd, I did love how it wrapped up with Hex essentially finding himself at an abandoned carnival; his body stuffed and mounted in a wild west museum, meaning he would get back to the past eventually, giving us some resolution since the series was soon cancelled -- and this notion did kinda come full circle in a later volume that ran from 2005 through 2011, where Hex met his ultimate demise in 1904 and his body was stolen by an unscrupulous carny to be put on display.

In between all that, Hex was resurrected for DC’s more adult oriented Vertigo line in 1994 with Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo. And while this adventure returned the character to the 1880s, things stayed kinda weird -- even more so, really, as author Joe R. Lansdale and artist Timothy Truman -- fresh off a take on the Lone Ranger and Tonto (Topps Comics, 1994) where they fought an Aztec mummy from outer-space, spun a supernatural tale where Hex battles an army of gun-toting zombies under the voodoo control of Doc “Cross” Williams, including the reanimated corpse of Wild Bill Hickok. Hex would survive this encounter and return again for another misadventure in Riders of the Worm and Such (1995), where he teamed up with a bunch of ranchers to fight off an underground invasion of giant worm-like monsters. 

Now, this story got DC, Lansdale, and Truman in some legal hot water when they were sued by musicians, Johnny and Edgar Winter, for defamation, as two of the bad guys, who were the end-result of some *ahem* ‘marital relations’ between one of the worms and a human woman, who were twin albinos, who were also cannibals, and were also kinda into bestiality with a very special pig, who went by the name of -- wait for it, the Autumn Brothers, meaning these grotesques were indeed inspired by the Winter brothers.

In the end, the case was dismissed on First Amendment grounds when it was successfully argued by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund that the books were intended as satire and parody, which meant the industry dodged a major bullet. And once all the legal hassles were cleared up, Lansdale, Truman and Hex would return one last time in Shadows West (1999), where the bounty hunter runs afoul of a Buffalo Wills’ wild west freak show when he attempts to rescue an Indian prostitute, who gave birth to a bear hybrid after mating with the great bear spirit, and return them to the father. So not making that up.

Throughout the years and his many permutations, Jonah Hex would establish a few allies and many recurring enemies. Allies included the likes of Scalphunter, Nighthawk, Bat Lash, and fellow bounty hunter, Cinnamon. The character of Tallulah Black was introduced in 2007; a young woman who was raped and mutilated by the renegades who murdered her family. Her life was saved by Hex, who then helped her get revenge. Black would go on to become a bounty hunter and Hex’s lover. The Lilah character in the film version was loosely based on Black -- or at least related; didn’t quite catch the reference. As for villains, there was the French nobleman, Count Henri D'Aubergnon, who treated Hex as the most dangerous game, a Mexican bandit named El Papagayo, and the aforementioned voodoo practitioner, Doc Williams, who was also in the movie adaptation, portrayed by Michael Shannon, until he wasn’t for reasons we’ll get to in a bit. But the biggest thorn in Hex’s side over the years was always Quentin Turnbull.

In the comics, during the Civil War, Hex was fighting for the Confederacy for reasons that were slightly muddled since he was always anti-slavery; and then chose to stop fighting and surrendered after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. But Hex would not reveal the location of his unit to the Union commander, who sussed it out later on his own, captured the whole lot, and made them think Hex had betrayed them. Hex and the others are then held prisoner at Fort Charlotte, where he engineers an escape through a ready made tunnel. But this turned out to be a trap so the rebels could be “shot while trying to escape.” Most were killed, including Hex’s best friend, Jeb Turnbull, but some did escape. Hex included. But word of his alleged betrayal made it back to Virginia, where plantation owner, Quentin Turnbull, angered over the death of his son, put a price on Hex’s head.

After killing most of the hired guns Turnbull sent after him, Hex tried to make peace but is captured and put on trial. And with the other survivors of the Fort Charlotte Massacre serving as the jury, Hex is found guilty and sentenced to death. And even though he managed to escape, Hex was unable to clear his name and must flee to the territories, where he becomes a bounty hunter.

We get bits and pieces of this origin in that jumbled prologue of Jonah Hex (2010), which felt like they were from a different movie altogether compared to what follows. (And it kinda was.) In the film version, after the Battle of Gettysburg, Turnbull really is betrayed by Hex, who turns in his whole regiment from what we see. What we don’t see is how Jeb is actually killed because they never even bothered to show us. (Why? Well, I have a theory.) Again, it’s kind of a mess. And the film that follows is an even bigger mess as Turnbull continues his mad scheme of revenge against the Union, whom he also holds responsible for the death of his son. And with the help of Adleman Lusk (Bentley), a corrupt congressmen from Virginia, Turnbull gains access to the last thing he needs: the super cannon’s specialized ammunition.

And once Burke secures these magical glowing brass ball detonators, his boss uses the completed weapon, which resembles a giant Nerf Gatling gun, to bombard a small town with giant cannonballs first, and then follows that up with a salvo of the specialized orbs, which detonate all the other ordinance as the town goes up in a giant mushroom cloud of destruction. And with that practical demonstration a rousing success, Turnbull is ready to move forward with his plan to bombard Washington D.C. and remove it from the map of these recently reunited United States.

Now, these very same plans are uncovered by Hex when he infiltrates Fort Resurrection, where he sees schematics to mount the cannon on an ironclad warship, maps showing the harbor where this will be done, and the intended target. Hex then fights his way to Turnbull, killing a lot of his men, but then takes a full shotgun blast to the chest from Burke and barely escapes when his horse, Horse, comes to the rescue. (Hey, it worked for Dudley Do-Right.) Once again, the Crow find the half dead Hex and once more get their mojo working to exorcise his demons and return him to health. And after a really bizarre fever dream, where he confronts Turnbull on a red saturated plain occupied only by them, a crow, and a coffin, Hex barfs up the crow, physically or metaphysically ain’t really clear, but he is now apparently healed and back on the warpath.

And once he telegraphs word to Grass of Turnbull’s plan to attack Washington by sea on the 4th of July, Hex rides on to Independence Harbor, where he gets the drop on Turnbull but can’t kill him when the villain reveals he has Lilah for a hostage. Thus, they’re both hostages now as Turnbull starts steaming up the Potomac and uses the super cannon to obliterate the battleship Lt. Grass tried to intercept them with. Meantime, Lilah manages to get loose and frees Hex. She then runs interference with the guards, allowing Hex to go for Turnbull and the cannon. But Burke intercepts him, they fight, it drags on, and on, and then on some more, until Hex finally kills him rather ridiculously with flaming thunderball fist, and then resurrects the corpse so he can watch Burke burn, who was the one who put the torch on his family. Fitting. 

Hex then attacks Turnbull. Here, the film mixes in more images from that fever dream for … reasons I cannot begin to comprehend, until Turnbull gets the upper hand, gives the order to fire the weapon, and then watches as dozens of cannonballs fly into the city. But before the magical triggering shells can be launched, Hex manages to gum up the works, jamming the feeder belt with Turnbull’s head. And as the weapon overloads and reaches critical mass, Hex and Lilah manage to bail off into the water before the cannon explodes, taking the ship, Turnbull, and all of his men with it.

The following day, President Grant rewards Hex with the bounty money for Turnbull, a hefty sum, and grants him a full pardon for his past crimes. He then offers Hex the job of -- wait for it, The Sheriff of the United States of America. But Hex finds this just as silly as you do, declines, and finds Lilah waiting for him outside and they leave the city together. Later, Hex visits Jeb’s grave one last time and apologizes for having to kill his father before riding off into the sunset, bringing all of this nonsense to the ever lovin’ end.

As the ‘Only In Hollywood’ proverb goes: Jonah Hex was a movie so bad they shot it twice and only made it worse. And this wasn’t even the first attempt at a live action adaptation. As early as 2000, producers Akiva Goldsman and Robert Zappia, inspired by the Lansdale and Truman comics, attempted to get a Jonah Hex TV pilot put together through 20th Century Fox, but it didn’t get much further than the preproduction phase. By 2007, Warner Bros. held the feature film rights to the character. And perhaps inspired by the success of HBO’s acclaimed series, Deadwood (2004-2007), brought in Goldsman and paired him up with Andrew Lazar to cash in, who commissioned a screenplay from Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who were just coming off the success of the action shoot-em-up sleeper hit, Crank (2006). And their script once more leaned on the Lansdale version, combining western elements with the supernatural.

Originally, Thomas Jane had showed interest in taking on the lead role, making it as far as a few wardrobe fittings and special makeup tests to recreate the character's signature facial scarring. Also considered were Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsch before Josh Brolin officially signed on. The actor was hesitant at first but liked the humor of the script and felt it was an interesting spin on Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) -- a western tale of revenge from beyond the grave. Megan Fox initially turned down the role of Lilah, too, because she found the initial script to be too violent and misogynistic, but changed her mind when Brolin came on board and the script went through a massive overhaul -- the first of many dictated by the studio.

And reading these red flags and warning signs early, Neveldine and Taylor, who were also slated to direct the film, quit the production in November, 2008, right before filming was set to commence, citing irreconcilable creative differences with the studio. To replace them, Brolin suggested Chan-wook Park -- Oldboy (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005), while the studio tried to land McG -- Charlie’s Angels (2000), Terminator Salvation (2009), before settling on Jimmy Hayward. Jonah Hex would be Hayward’s first live-action feature, whose only directing experience was on the animated feature, Horton Hears a Who (2008). And with that, the production was pushed back to April, 2009, as the script went through yet another rewrite at Hayward’s behest.

But after filming wrapped in Louisiana and Hayward delivered the rough cut of his version to the Warner brass, they balked and diplomatically told the director they “were now moving in another direction” with the film and brought in Francis Lawrence -- Constantine (2005), I Am Legend (2007), for a complete overhaul from the script on down, resulting in some massive reshoots, where 66 new pages were filmed in 12 days, as the budget ballooned from around $15 to nearly $80 million. This new footage was then cobbled together with the old by four different editors, resulting in a scatterbrained narrative that made little sense and was highly derivative as the film became less of Deadwood by way of High Plains Drifter and started resembling more of an outlandish sequel to the horrifically misguided Wild Wild West (1999), with the high-tech gadgets, guns, and cartoonish plot, corn-holed into a re-imagining of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).

The whole plot about the super cannon was added during Lawrence’s reshoots, as was most of Hex’s origin and the addition of his supernatural ability to resurrect the dead -- something he never had in the comics. I think some of Hayward’s original footage was used during that baffling opening montage of quick cuts and animated inserts. I do know for sure that whole fever dream sequence was actually the director's original climax, which was so bizarre I kinda wanna see what his whole cut looked like. Characters also fell by the wayside during the overhaul. Will Arnett’s role was severely cut, Michael Shannon’s was all but removed except for a fleeting glimpse, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s diminished role as a corpse went uncredited. And then there’s John Malkovich, who seems to have missed the memo on the changes as he plays the villain completely straight when it surely could’ve used some ham and cheese. At least Michael Fassbender seems to be having fun as the vile Burke.

Brolin would later admit the film essentially became unsalvageable due to its troubled production history, but insisted everyone involved had sincerely wanted to make Jonah Hex a good movie. And on top of everything else, the actor almost lost an eye during the hazardous production due to the extensive makeup and prosthetics. “It was a horror story within itself,” Brolin recalled. “Three hours in the makeup chair a day … and with 46 shooting days, I spent five and half full days in that chair.” For the facial scars, they put a piece of tape on Brolin's cheek, which was fastened to the back of the actor’s neck and covered by a prosthetic. The mouth was also stretched back with another appliance, which held it open. This was also covered with a prosthetic. In the comics, Hex’s right eye was also permanently exposed due to the eyelids being burned off. There was talk of doing this effect with CGI but it was deemed too expensive. And so, it was done practically. And in less than an hour, the actor’s eye became infected and the whole effect was abandoned.

When the punched-up and punched-out and punch-drunk version of Jonah Hex was finally deemed fit for release by the studio that had no idea what it was doing and then wrecked it even further, the film made its dubious debut on the same weekend as Toy Story 3 (2010), where it got buried on its way to crashing and burning at the box-office, losing some $70 million. And it might’ve set comic book film adaptations back to square one after the advances made by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and The X-Men (2000) if not for the recent box-office success of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) and Iron Man (2008), which triggered Marvel Studios’ run to box-office glory because, you know, they actually had faith in their characters and pretty much played them straight.

As for Jonah Hex, when you watch this mess, you have to give some credit to all involved outside the studio that a film this incoherent and slapped and dashed piecemeal within an inch of its life had a beginning, a middle, and an end that almost strings together. It also established a disturbing pattern and trend on Warner Bros. part for colossal post-production dickering because those schmucks were doing that long before they got their hands on Suicide Squad (2016) and Justice League (2017). (So, heads up, James Gunn. And good luck.) There’s a lesson to be learned here, but no one at Warner Bros. seems to be listening. How many times can they keep making these same mistakes? I fear indefinitely. And that’s too bad.

As an avowed comic book nerd, I was never a huge Jonah Hex fan but I got on board and behind the character with the Lansdale and Truman runs, of whom I am a huge fan, and have since backtracked through some trades and omnibuses. There’s an interesting character there, with a rich history of both wild west action and dabbling in the weird, and bordering on science fiction. And I think it would make a helluva movie, a down and dirty R-rated western, with the right director behind it -- if the studio would leave them alone and let them do their thing. As for what we got, considering the clout onscreen -- Brolin, Malkovich, Fassbender, and the millions expended on it trying to “fix it,” Jonah Hex had no business being this bad.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's ten reviews down with 17 to go! Up Next: Bartering for murder, and why you should never leave your keys in the car -- especially when you have a dead body in the trunk.

Jonah Hex (2010) Mad Chance ;; Weed Road Pictures :: DC Entertainment :: Legendary Entertainment :: Warner Bros. / EP: William Fay, John Goldstone, Jon Jashni, Matt LeBlanc, Ravi D. Mehta, Thomas Tull / P: Akiva Goldsman, Andrew Lazar / CP: Margot Lulick, Richard Middleton, Miri Yoon / AP: Joshua Levinson / D: Jimmy Hayward / W: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor, William Farmer, John Albano (comics), Tony DeZuniga (comics) / C: Mitchell Amundsen / E: Kent Beyda, Daniel P. Hanley, Tom Lewis, Fernando Villena / M: Marco Beltrami, Mastodon / S: Josh Brolin, Megan Fox, John Malkovich, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnett, Tom Wopat, Wes Bentley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan,


Unknown said...

Well, I like old Jonah's stories just fine, podnah. But, after reading your review, I'm glad I've always avoided the movie. I read a few Hex's over the years, and really admired the 90's series. I recently picked up the Showcase edition of his early stories and enjoyed them immensely. While, most people just assume that Marvel ruled over DC in the 60s and 70s, I feel that this is greatly exaggerated. Marvel may have had an edge thru complicated story lines in their super-hero efforts, but DC totally ruled in Western and War comics. Even today, I enjoy reading the quick one-issue gems of Hex, Sgt. Rock, G.I. Combat, and Star Spangled War Stories. Keep up the good work, and watch out for low varmint sidewinders.

W.B. Kelso said...

The film is in that nebulous space where it's not very good but not bad enough to be any kind of fun, making for a pretty dreadful experience. I came across a ton of DC war books and westerns when I bought a several boxes of books from Northern League when they were still in the mall after they pulled all the Bat and X titles out of them. Quite a steal. Didn't really get into Hex until the Lansdale stuff, an author I truly love, and have been backtracking ever since.

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