Saturday, June 26, 2010

Hollywood Hates Westerns. Or, Why Clint Eastwood Should Have Been Cast as Jonah Hex ... 30 Years Ago

Jonah Hex, to most people, is an obscure character from DC Comics; and it looks like his debut feature film is destined for even greater obscurity.

While no one expected him to be as famous as some of his counterparts in the DC Universe, such as Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, there can be little doubt as to the devotion of the following he has earned for himself. The original Hex was a simple bounty hunter in the Old West, with a horribly scarred face and a ruthlessness that would shock even the Dark Knight. He would have made a great classic-styled Western movie hero; except that Hollywood doesn't seem all that interested in making classic Westerns anymore. Instead of facing cattle rustlers and train robbers, Hex's nemesis is Quentin Turnbull, a "terrorista" bent on stealing an 1800's era weapon of mass destruction. Hex is recruited by the U.S. government to act as Jack Bauer, basically; which at least helps preserve his basic character.

Most comic book heroes are one of two kinds: the straightforward good versus evil type, or the morally ambiguous thought-provoking types. Hex is a third kind. He's one of the first anti-heroes in comic literature, and one of the few to survive as such over the decades. Bounty hunters in general aren't seen as being that heroic. "They'll do the right thing, if the price is right" is the attitude with which they're regarded.

Jonah Hex, especially the Hex of the movie, fits that mold. While he may have acted bravely during the Civil War, refusing orders from Turnbull (his commanding officer at the time) to slaughter innocent lives, his descent from heroism is complete by the time the Union Army enlists him to find and stop his former commander. It is only the prospect of revenge against the man who killed his family, burned his face, and left him for dead that entices the murderous Hex to assist the Army in stopping Turnbull's plot to destroy America on the very night of its centennial.

Attempts are made to humanize Hex. Flashbacks to his days as a family man, his rescue by the Indians which led to his supernatural abilities (not present in the original comics), and even his friendship with Turnbull's son are meant to show the audience the man he was. In the end, though, we're left with the man he is.

Megan Fox gives a decent performance as Lilah, the frontierswoman who attempts to draw Hex away from the life he's built for himself. Her character, though, is clumsily patched on to the Hex universe (she's also absent from the comics), and her scenes feel accordingly out of step with the rest of the movie. Her character could easily have been written out of the film.

Some have wondered what the problem was with writing a straightforward Western-style script for Jonah Hex's first introduction to the big screen. As I mentioned before, the answer is most likely in Hollywood's attitude towards Westerns. "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is the only one in the last decade that comes to mind, and I'm certain they only made that movie because of the success of the novel. Jonah Hex, on the other hand, is a "superhero" story, even if it is about one that didn't have superpowers. Westerns used to be gritty, with leading men like Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, and even Yul Brynner. That would have been the perfect era for a Jonah Hex movie, without a single mention of superpowers, terrorists, or weapons of mass destruction.

(Read the original review here.)