With the first trailer for Jonah Hex hitting the Web today, we're getting our first real look at the Western comic-book adaptation starring Josh Brolin, Megan Fox and John Malkovich.
The production has been riddled with rumors of extensive reshoots, while fans have also bristled online over hints that the storyline contains supernatural or sci-fi elements—or as someone named "Dude" posted on the Superhero Hype message boards: "Please, dear God, tell me there's no retarded supernatural bulls--t shoehorned into what should be a straight western."
Let's leave aside the movie's troubled history and any thoughts about its overall quality or entertainment value for a moment and think about that last comment. While Hex has delved into horror and sci-fi throughout his 38-year checkered publication history, most of his time has been spent dealing out a dark, gritty, violent brand of frontier justice with few to no otherworldly elements.
Movie critics and fans talk a lot about genre films being "gritty"—The Dark Knight is a "gritty" superhero movie—meaning that there's a level of realism involved that makes the outlandish events seem somehow plausible. There's perhaps no genre that's grittier than the western, with its rough-edged, hard-living characters, simple, violent morality and pre-industrial American landscapes. But introduce other elements into that setting—wild inventions, monsters, supernatural powers—and the combination, more often than not, seems to tilt into the ridiculous, at least when it comes to the big screen.
Perhaps the stark nature of the western simply can't support the fantastic. Cowboys fighting dinosaurs were introduced in both 1956's The Beast of Hollow Mountain and 1969's The Valley of Gwangi, but neither film is particularly well remembered today. While the TV series The Wild Wild West was a hit in its time, the 1999 movie starring Will Smith was a colossal artistic failure and not exactly a barn-burner at the box office. That same year saw the release of Ravenous, an Old West mix of cannibal horror and black comedy that also failed commercially and creatively.
Although there are exceptions—like director J.T. Petty's frightening horror/western hybrid The Burrowers—injecting sci-fi elements into the western just doesn't seem to work. Curiously, however, going the other way and putting western elements into contemporary sci-fi or other genre fare seems to work better. John Carpenter did it successfully in 1976 with the urban crime thriller Assault on Precinct 13, an update of Rio Bravo set in contemporary times. Also, 1981's Outland, with Sean Connery, is basically a remake of High Noon set in space and remains an underrated cult favorite. The Mad Max movies, Near Dark and both Joss Whedon's Firefly TV series and its cinematic offshoot, Serenity, all take basic western themes and successfully port them into modern or futuristic settings, winning ardent fans.
Perhaps those "gritty," realistic trademarks of the western can work in any time or place, while futuristic or horrific elements just don't look right on horseback, meaning that Jonah Hex may soon find itself added to that relatively small but significant pile of failed genre crossovers. We'll have to wait until June 18, when the movie opens, to see if it's the exception to the rule.
But don't worry—the weird western will have another shot at cinematic glory next year when Jon Favreau brings Cowboys & Aliens, also based on a comic book, to the screen.
What do you think? Could Jonah Hex be the movie to break the curse?