Silver Screen: Jonah Hex *

Silver Screen: Jonah Hex *
Bryan Miller

Jonah Hex is unquestionably an early frontrunner for Worst Picture of 2010, but it certainly isn't the most unpleasant movie of the year to sit through. The adaptation of the D.C. comic book, which in its original form was basically a four-color riff on the Clint Eastwood Man with No Name movies, is awesomely inept, so manic and misguided that it actually builds something like momentum and generates a weird meta-suspense. What incoherent plot twist will come next, what genre incorporated into this silly gumbo pot of a movie? You'll be on the edge of your seat, and only partly because you're considering walking out.

Josh Brolin stars as the title character, a gunslinging bounty hunter who learned the killing trade as a Confederate soldier but came to see the error of his ways. When the leader of his outfit, the vindictive General Turnbull (John Malkovich), fashions himself as a kind of anti-Sherman and starts laying waste to Union civilians, Hex revolts, killing Turnbull's son in the process. Enraged, Turnbull exacts revenge on Hex's family.

So far, so coherent. But here, somewhere around the four-minute mark of the movie, the plot takes a goofy twist. After Turnbull's goons set Hex's wife and son on fire, they scar his face with a branding iron and leave him chained to a makeshift cross to die. A group of Indians with magical shaman powers drag our hero back to their teepee, where they bring him back from the verge of death with lots of smoke and chanted spells. Hex survives, but henceforth finds himself able to converse with the dead according to a mostly arbitrary list of rules the movie makes up as it goes along.

A distraught President Ulysses S. Grant (Aidan Quinn), with the help of a smug proto-CIA officer (Will Arnett), enlists Hex to track down Turnbull, who has stolen an old-timey weapon of mass destruction created by Eli Whitney. Turnbull plans to use the weapon, which doesn't seem nearly as destructive as the overheated expository dialogue makes it sound, to destroy Washington D.C. during the country's one-hundredth birthday celebration.

Jonah Hex was written by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the brainless trust behind the Crank movies. It shows. The movie drips with their puerile glee, with every stray building exploded in a fiery cloud of death and Hex sporting absurd twin Gatling guns mounted on either side of his trusty steed. But Neveldine and Taylor were supposed to direct as well, a task that eventually fell to novice Jimmy Hayward. More than it echoes the adolescent sensibilities of the Crank boys, Jonah Hex bears the ugly mark of a movie fussed over by too many screenwriters and directors, pulled in too many different directions and never fully conceived.

And so it alternately plays like a riff on The Crow (avenging devil Hex is actually followed around by a supernatural-seeming blackbird), Wild Wild West (he's decked out with all manner of antique techno-toys), and Kill Bill (the movie falls into a two-minute animated sequence at one point, for no discernible reason), among others. It races from one befuddling plot point to another, a series of seemingly disparate action sequences glued together by a series of loose plot threads. The film plays like four different directors made four different Jonah Hex movies, then forced some poor editor at gunpoint to cut the assembled footage together into a single narrative.

If any other proof was needed that this mutant turkey was the unfortunate result of a lot of awry intentions and bad business, it's the weird revolving door of supporting actors. Nobody but Brolin gets any significant screentime, even sweat-slicked sexpot Megan Fox as Hex's whore with a heart of glitter, but several notable actors show up for only one or two scenes: Arnett and Quinn, sure, but also Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Hex's undead best buddy, The Wire's Lance Reddick as an approximation of James Bond's gadget-maker Q, and Wes Bentley as... somebody who has two quick scenes with Malkovich. Character actor Michael Shannon is one of the top-billed costars, but he doesn't appear in a single frame of the movie, and his character, Doc Cross Williams, isn't even once mentioned.

The whole thing would be entirely unbearable if the edited-to-ribbons film didn't clock in at a sleek eighty minutes, which includes the credits. With only about an hour and fifteen minutes of actual running time to fill, it moves so quickly from its hasty setup to its silly plot to its perfunctory climax that viewers don't have much time to get bored. There's some kind of lesson here for makers of bad genre films: At a lean seventy-five minutes (not much more than half the running time of the Karate Kid remake), even the worst movie is grimly tolerable.