There are few truths to be found in the smoldering ash heap that is "Jonah Hex," but here are the ones that matter: John Malkovich is responsible for the Fourth of July fireworks tradition (who knew?); Megan Fox looks better fighting in a bustier than tight white "Transformers" jeans (no-brainer); definitely consider a cosmetic surgeon to deal with those unsightly facial scars, don't get in a pique and try to do it yourself (duh).
This latest DC Comics transmogrification into mega-action mess stars Josh Brolin as Jonah, a bounty-hunting latter-day saint with an ax to grind and a face that even a mother couldn't love (see cosmetic surgery tip above). The film is director Jimmy Hayward's (" Horton Hears a Who!") first go at live action and there is promise in all the fire and brimstone raining down, just no soul in the souls the devil went down to Georgia for.
Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, "Jonah Hex" is an apocalypse story of betrayal and redemption that burns its way through D.C., the Deep South and the dusty West. The till-death-do-they-part battle between good and evil pits a renegade Confederate colonel named Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich) against a vengeance-hungry Jonah. At stake is more than old grudges — the very future of these newly united states hangs in the balance.
Basically Jonah shot Turnbull's son and some other Confederates who started blowing up civilians rather than Union soldiers. Not one to turn the other cheek, Turnbull murdered Jonah's family and seared his QT brand into Jonah's face as a reminder that he "destroyed everything you ever loved," or something like that. It's not easy to forget the sentiment since Malkovich delivers the line so many times you wonder if he just never got the script revisions.
Ah, the "script." Writers Neveldine & Taylor, who I gather aren't using their first names to protect the family's rep, have found a way to turn biblical references into bad dialogue at head-turning speed while making 83 minutes feel like a lifetime. I guess with "Crank" and "Crank: High Voltage" as a training ground, it was to be expected.
In the comic book tradition, the story weaves between the real and the mythical, but it's a very boozy trip. Brolin's intermittent voice-over narration proves to be the most powerful stuff, with the rest curiously sputtering. Case in point: Jonah's caustic one-liners fall dead because their target has already bitten the dust — it's just no fun if you can't see the guy react to being dissed before he's deceased.
The look of the film is great, though visually there are three distinctive streams that Hayward has trouble meshing. There is the stark graphic comic book style that is used to good effect in the beginning when Jonah is filling us in on why he's so mad. The style that dominates the film is a sort of spaghetti western wrapped in worn leather and dusted by grime, that is by far the best; and finally a surreal-scape of dry red river beds and scary dreams, which look evocative but are just not right for this movie.
Of course the biggest effect is Jonah's face, with half of it Brolin's ruggedly handsome scruff, the other a swirling crater of skin with a hole that exposes very bad dental hygiene. I guess it's a good thing that Fox's Lilah, a sharp-shooting hooker with a crush on Hex, didn't find it as distracting as I did, or some of the fights would have gone on even longer.
Malkovich, who does malevolence so well, is strangely flat as the villain. All would be lost without his No. 2, the devilish Michael Fassbender as a tattooed crazy Brit named Burke. He takes care of most of the hand-to-hand combat with Jonah and brings the fire needed to fuel the bad guys and inflame his adversaries.
That is not an inconsequential skill, since he who controls the fire controls the action in "Jonah Hex." Cities burn, people burn, circuses burn, boats burn. The government's secret new weapon of mass destruction that Turnball has stolen and Jonah has been conscripted to recover is a molten sphere that turns ordinary cannonballs into great balls of fire. But this is one film even Jerry Lee Lewis couldn't save.