Superhero Saturday: ‘Jonah Hex’ (2010) is a stylish Wild West production in service of a thin story (Movie review)

I

appreciate that “Jonah Hex” (2010) is only 82 minutes long – the length of some episodes of “Westworld” nowadays – because it makes for a fairly painless viewing experience. Unfortunately, it’s also brainless. This adaptation of DC Comics’ Western superhero invented in 1972 is short for a reason: Writers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor tell the thinnest possible story. And it’s directed by Jimmy Hayward, who primarily does animated films. As such, “Jonah Hex” has the simplicity of an animated kids’ movie; it’s for adults only because of the violent revenge narrative.

Josh Brolin gives a solid centerpiece turn as Hex, who looks like “Batman’s” Two-Face, having had one cheek branded by his nemesis, Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich). Both Confederate fighters, their back-and-forth cycle of violence began off-screen when Turnbull ordered his men to kill civilians during the war. Hex refused and was forced to kill Turnbull’s son, Jeb (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). In an opening flashback, Turnbull kills Hex’s family, and … yada, yada, yada … they want to kill each other.

Brolin, helped by the prosthetic half-face and a few good one-liners, amiably grits up Hex to try to overcome the edgeless material. And he’s actually surrounded by a great cast.

Turnbull starts a secondary flare-up of the Civil War as the 1876 centennial approaches, having acquired a superweapon. He can fire a bunch of cannonballs at a target, and then follow them with a golden cannonball that makes the rest blow up, causing a super-explosion. (Also adding to the fantastical side: Hex’s superpower is that he can briefly resurrect dead people in order to question them.)

Neveldine and Taylor play the historical commentary boringly safe. Hex’s gunsmith Smith (Lance Reddick) delivers the nonsensical explanation that Hex was against the Union because he disliked being controlled, yet he also opposed secession. Huh? To further emphasize Hex’s goodness, he is against slavery, which is why he’s such a cuddly figure to Smith, apparently. In a scene of Hex collecting a bounty, we even get dialog assuring us that Hex always gets proof beforehand that his targets are guilty. Yeah, cuz the Wild West is always so cut-and-dried.

Hex is happy to help out President Grant (Aidan Quinn) against Turnbull’s latest depredations, and while the writers don’t make Hex a patriot, they also dodge the notion that Hex is only doing this because he and Grant share a mutual enemy.

Brolin, helped by the prosthetic half-face and a few good one-liners, amiably grits up Hex to try to overcome the edgeless material. And he’s actually surrounded by a great cast, including a pre-“X-Men” Michael Fassbender as Turnbull’s grinning right-hand man and a pre-“Man of Steel” Michael Shannon as a doctor. I didn’t notice Shannon until his name popped up in the end credits, so he either has a nothing role or disappears into a role.

Among the set design is Megan Fox as world-weary prostitute Lilah, who recognizes Hex’s decency, which isn’t too hard when his stiffest competition is a client who purchases Lilah as if she’s a slave and then tries to shoot her when she says she’s not property. He should’ve known this was legally the case when he “bought” her, considering that news of the end of slavery has had two decades to reach the remotest outposts.

Even without having read the comic, I know there could’ve been a better adaptation of a character who had his own title from 1977-87 and 2006-11. But Western-tinged superheroes for some reason tend to land with a thud on the big screen, with “Jonah Hex” slotting in alongside Marvel’s “Ghost Rider” films from 2007 and ’11.

The final showdown between Hex and Turnbull doubles as a centennial Fourth of July fireworks display in D.C., which is appropriate because this film offers as much food for thought as a fireworks show. “Jonah Hex” looks good, it’s inoffensive if you weren’t expecting more, and you’ll immediately forget it.

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