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10 years later, Jonah Hex still sports a unique, terrible kind of magic

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Jun 17, 2020, 1:28 PM EDT

To put movies into the categories of Good and Bad is reductive, but in some cases, it's unavoidable. The Godfather is a good movie. Jack & Jill is a bad movie. Jonah Hex, 10 years young this month, is the best kind of bad movie: It's a bad movie that thinks it's a good movie. And that makes it a great movie.

I say "movie," but Jonah Hex is less a coherent film than it is a series of set-pieces. It begins with an unironically gorgeous shot of a lone coffin in a sandy red desert, a black crow resting atop it. About an hour into the movie, it's vaguely explained that this desert is purgatory, or some version of it, though details on how and why are left sketchy. We then get a burst of backstory — the only prolonged piece of narrative in the film — which briefly details Hex's tragic past, before we see that Hex's horse has dual Gatling guns on either side of its neck. How can it carry the weight? Where are the bullet strings? Why doesn't the horse get spooked by the noise and jerk away?

Jonah Hex teaches you quickly not to ask questions.

The never-ending set pieces aren't the only things that give Jonah Hex its unique charm, however. John Malkovich and Wes Bentley (playing central antagonist Turnbull and his benefactor Lusk, respectively), great actors by all accounts, deliver all of their lines with the energy of a 9AM table read when the coffee machine is broken. Bentley tries an affected, upper-class accent, but was clearly still breaking it in when the movie was shot. Michael Fassbender's take on Turnbull's lackey Burke, on the other hand, has "pantomime on a sugar rush"-level energy, and the combination of styles is unintentional genius. Josh Brolin and Megan Fox, as central duo Jonah Hex and his prostitute girlfriend Lilah, are the only actors who manage to get their energy levels even close to appropriate, but they share the chemistry of strangers who just met at the bus stop.

None of these are criticisms, at least not in the traditional sense. All of this utter nonsense somehow combines into one of the most fascinatingly brilliant spectacles I've ever seen.

It's as if someone pulled all of the expired food from the fridge and transformed it into a magnificent stew. The only thing that really leaves a sour taste is the strange appropriation of Native American mysticism, where "Native Americans are magic" is the only explanation offered for Jonah Hex's power for bringing the dead back to life, but only while he's touching them. Given that the movie struggles to tell its own story properly, though, it's no surprise that it can't tell someone else's.

Despite the movie being non-stop action, it does still manage to rise to a climax, with Hex's final battle on board Turnbull's ship on the Potomac. Turnbull has the "World Ender" — a big cannon with glowing golden cannonballs. He aims to shoot them at the still-being-erected Washington Monument during the president's centenary speech, which will apparently destroy the United States and allow the South to rise again. This motive and outcome is never questioned by a single soul in the movie, by the way. It is simply fact.

Along the way, Hex kills a manically laughing Burke, brings him back to life, then punches him so hard the corpse turns into ashes. There's also a moment when Hex and Lilah — who doesn't play any role in the story until the final fight — are separately being held down by villains. Lilah squirms for an axe which Turnbull confiscated from Hex then apparently left on the floor, but she ends up nudging it over the edge of the deck.

Not to worry, though. It falls directly into Hex's hand! Was Hex actually right below Lilah? Yes? No? Maybe? It doesn't really matter, because with the ax, he's able to escape from Turnbull and throw the ax at the cannon. The ship explodes, Hex and Lilah jump off, hand in hand. No one else survives the blast. The president and the assembled crowd are fine even though they had just moments earlier been clearly hit by several golden cannonballs. Everyone is safe, and the day is saved. How are Hex and Lilah together when they were explicitly on different floors before? How come no one else escapes? How did the crowd survive the cannon fire? Remember, don't ask questions…

I'm not trying to convince you that Jonah Hex is a good movie. It's not. It's a bad movie. But it's a bad movie built in such a way that it actually becomes a great movie. Ten years on, the magic holds up.