Why Jonah Hex is as much of a mess as its hero's face

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 4:31 PM EST

First, the good news—Jonah Hex is only 80 minutes long. Even better, 20 minutes of the film is comprised of various characters looking offscreen and saying, "Jonah Hex."

Another 20 minutes is explosions. Pretty much every building in the whole movie explodes. If it's not a dog, horse or prostitute, it's probably going to explode.

Indeed, in one early scene, when a sniper falls from a bell tower and lands in a water-filled trough, I turned to another critic at the screening and said, "I'm surprised he didn't hit the ground and explode."

The other 40 minutes is full of exposition. Not plot, just exposition. Three-people-sharing-story-credits worth of exposition.

We don't see Jonah Hex, the one-time rebel soldier, turn on his superior officer Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich, sleepwalking through this bad decision) to keep him from burning down a hospital. We don't see Eli Whitney, who started "the Industrial Revolution" (uh, no, he didn't) build a giant gunboat armed with glowing orange dragon balls. We don't know how Jonah met Lilah (Megan Fox), the whore girlfriend he got on the rebound from seeing his wife and son being exploded to death while he was tied helpless to a giant X. We don't know why the Crow Indians give Hex all sorts of neat powers—the ability to talk to the dead while being followed by crows without being covered in bird crap—though they don't seem to have any powers of their own.

Even worse is that Josh Brolin does a fair amount of this exposition while wearing the latex burn that holds Hex's lips together. A lot of his dialogue sounds like this: auuh cuuh taah fuhfuhdeh. (That's "I can talk to the dead." And yes, the dead are chock-full of exposition too!) If only Megan Fox was the one with her mouth sewn half shut ...

Anyway, Jonah Hex is a bit like the Will Smith stinker Wild, Wild West, but without a shred of humor or human decency. Turnbull wants revenge on the Union and is putting together a super mega-weapon that the Union had constructed but never assembled because it was too terrible ever to use, but not quite so terrible that it should be dismantled and the plans burned. President Grant (Aidan Quinn! He used to be so good!) realizes in a burst of inspiration that Turnbull wants to destroy America with the "nation-killing" gun on the fourth (not the third or the fifth) of July and calls for Hex instead of, say, the entire U.S. military to find Turnbull before the centennial celebration. Hex, for his part, hates the Union, and hated slavery, and didn't like the South much either, but he double-especially hates Turnbull, so he's down for some explodin'.

Then, well, nothing really happens. A lot of horses and gunplay and a weird wrestling match between a muscular guy and a "snake man"—and at one point a free black shopkeeper outfits Hex with guns that shoot sticks of dynamite!—but it's all meaningless. Lilah gets kidnapped to lure Hex to the nation-killing ship ... which is where Hex wants to go anyway. The boat is launched and heads toward Washington D.C. Military genius U.S. Grant has all of one ship guarding the city. Military genius Turnbull doesn't kill Hex or Lilah after they have killed a bunch of his henchmen, but instead decides that they should "watch" ... but watch what? Forget that the pair are chained up belowdecks and won't be seeing anything, and, hell, forget the fact that Hex is such a badass that he had already set his own hand on fire just to punch a guy, so should definitely be shot immediately! The important fact is that Jonah Hex cares nothing for America, and his former Confederate army commanding officer Turnbull surely knows that. Oddly, Hex and Lilah were not left unguarded, but the two guards on either side of the door behind which the prisoners are chained literally just stand there, bored, while being disarmed and beaten by our heroes. The extras must have accidentally been given the whole script to read.

The characters remain ciphers. Fox's Lilah is a hardass ho with a heart of gold and a box full of money. She clearly doesn't need to, uh, "work" and kills several men without blinking, but when one of Turnbull's goons slaps her across the face she just collapses into a weeping heap. Broslin plays Hex like Unforgiven-era Clint Eastwood, and we spend a lot of time in his head ... but even his head makes no sense. His mindscape is a glowing red desert in which he and Turnbull have a never-ending karate fight—the final battle even includes interspersed shots of this fantasy landscape, as if just to make sure we can't follow the action. I wonder if there wasn't an entirely different script, parts of which were shot, which those scenes originally belonged to. When your 80-minute film needs so much padding that extra footage is restitched into the film, you know there is trouble.

Despite all the extra time in the film for it, there's almost no character development and nobody at all to relate to ... well, except for one person. During the big boat battle, Lilah kicks a man in the balls and then both Lilah and Hex shoot him in the face. I thought, "Yes, I relate to that guy. He's feeling what I'm feeling right now, thanks to watching Jonah Hex."