You ever happen to avoid a particular movie title like the plague just because everyone says it's a gigantic waste of time? And then years later, you happen to catch that same movie on TV, and you stop on it just long enough to have a look, because there's nothing else on? And you sit through it a bit and you wonder, Why did everyone trash talk this movie so badly? It might not be great, but it's surely not the lamentable piece of trash everyone said it was. What's the big deal?
By letting the positive/negative hype factor wash over you like that, two things tend to happen. Either a) those movies everyone hailed as near- masterpieces turn out to be mild-to-major disappointments, or b) those so-called "bombs" don't stink quite as bad as the movie-going public would have you believe.
That said, I happened upon a copy of Jonah Hex the other night, that critically-reviled Western/Period Adventure/wannabe blockbuster from last summer directed by Jimmy Hayward and starring Josh Brolin and Megan Fox, and decided to give it a spin. I'd heard nothing but bad things, the previews never looked enticing enough to peak my interest, and I had at least five minutes to spare, so you know, why not? At least I could get a feel for why everyone hated the thing so much, and then move on to something else. No harm, no foul.
Only... as minute after minute of it ticked by, an odd thing happened... I honestly didn't mind what I was watching. It's a typical revenge tale, based on a comic book (naturally), about a Confederate-soldier-turned-bounty-hunter during the Civil War, his face a mass of scarred flesh, chasing after the man (and former commanding officer) who murdered his wife and son. And it follows a typical formula, with explosions and gunfights at regular intervals. Needless to say, I sat through all of it, never kicking myself, those five minutes of free time turning into 71 minutes instead, minus credits. (That's right, the movie proper runs just a little over an hour, which I guess is a merciful thing.)
"I'm lookin' for the makeup department..."
And so it goes. Why did everyone trash talk this movie so badly? Why the massive backlash? Was it because Toy Story 3 opened in theaters the same day, dooming Hex to relative obscurity? Does every movie based on a comic book have to be The Dark Knight just to impress anyone? Maybe not, but people expect at least a modicum of thrills and style from the movies they see, which apparently Jonah Hex is at a loss to provide. Visit the Hex page at Rotten Tomatoes, and you'll see it stands at a dismal 13% approval rating; even those "positive" reviews are anything but glowing. Here's a sampling of the worst ones:
"80 some odd minutes of bland, boring, tedious nonsense. Utterly inept and squandering potential at every opportunity, the only 'interesting' thing the film has going for it is an ending that is totally bizarro, terribly conceived and bafflingly stupid."
- Devin Faraci, CHUD.com
"It isn't just that no effort is expended on old- fogey ideas like character development; it's more that Hayward doesn't even try to make individual scenes make sense."
- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com
"Every once in a while, a film limps into theaters so stitched together, it's a wonder it doesn't rip apart in the projector. Jonah Hex is such a film."
- Keith Phipps, The Onion A.V. Club
"If all you want is a bullets-and-bombs B-movie, you'll get your money's worth: Somehow, Hayward makes 82 minutes feel like hours."
- Elizabeth Weitzman, New York Daily News
"Everyone seems to be sleepwalking through this film. Except for Megan Fox, who is such a terrible actress that she couldn't even act like she's sleepwalking."
- Marshall Fine, Hollywood & Fine
Ouch. I especially enjoy that last one, which singles out Ms. Fox as if her "acting" were the reason anyone pays money to watch her in the first place. Although, to be honest, I really could have done without the corset. Seriously, I don't know how anyone ever thought those things were attractive. Unless you'd call looking like a withered corpse "attractive."
Really, though. The movie itself isn't all that bad. It's got star power. The sets don't wobble. Understand, there's a fine line between "liking" something, and "not minding" something. I certainly have issues with it. That mercifully short running time, for one, leaves the movie absolutely no room for play. Story beats come at such a perfunctory pace, it's like the screenwriters (a hack duo billed as "Neveldine & Taylor" in the credits) were paid simply to move the plot from one scene to the next, sans any of the "imagination" or "character development" that people seem to value so dearly. John Malkovich semi-cameos as main baddie Quentin Turnbull, which you half-expect would class up the joint a bit, but no - he sneers all ten of his lines, does a few dirty deeds, and then (SPOILER) gets a taste of his own medicine, Hex-style. And then there's pouty-lipped Fox, on hand as... well, if nothing else, as a bitter warning against self- asphyxiation.
The movie's saving grace is Josh Brolin (son of James), who's got the right mix of gruff determination and tongue-in-cheek swagger for the title role. He stands so far above the material it's a shame to see him buried under the non-plot. He tosses off some good one-liners ("C----t, woman, how many men you seeing today?"), gets a couple of nifty action beats (I liked the part, early in the film, where an assassin steps out of a coffin to ambush Jonah - don't ask me what the guy was doing in there - gets shot, and falls back into the coffin), and yes, seems like he's acting in a better movie.
"Got any other choice words you'd like to say about me?"
Looking him up on Wikipedia, I learn that Jonah Hex (created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga in 1971) first appeared in DC Comics' All-Star Western #10, and later became the star of his own series, which ran from 1977 to 1985. He survived by his wits and his sharpshooting prowess (he did not, as the movie shows, have the ability to interrogate the dead), and though he never achieved the same celebrity status as Batman or Superman, I suppose that would suit the character's surly demeanor just fine. I wonder what Jonah's creators might have thought of the movie, produced and directed in a style so matter-of-fact it never quite pops on the screen, the way the best movies do.