Emancipation Day and The Income Tax Due Date bracketed this past weekend, making it the right time to rent a ghost story/steampunk Dirty South Risin' hybrid comic book adaptation, on blu-ray, and play it loud... proud-like. Josh Brolin stars, in scarry face and surly voice as JONAH HEX (2010), a Confederate officer left to die by an evil rebel general (John Malkovich). Medicine men show up and bring him back to life, but he stays half in the other world, and that's what gives the film its edge - Hex can talk to the dead, and the dead are pissed.
Co-starring as the love interest is the aptly named Megan Fox, a raven beauty whose flawless face is here for some reason shot through the kind of Vaseline haze usually reserved for older women. A derringer-toting prostitute, she fights everyone else like a wildcat, and thank god we're spared their first date, and other dull set-ups. In fact the whole mess of mysterious origin stuff is summed up the way it would be in a comic book, if you were starting with, say, issue #34, as a page of flashback before the credits. As this film runs a lean 78 minutes, there's a nice random issue feeling, all swinging axes and splash page eyebrow raises and abundant stones still unturned (would have loved to see them thar hell hounds). What makes the film unique are the touches like Hex rapping with the dead and I dig Hex's followed by a murder of CGI crows wherever he may ride --he's the Raoul Duke of the Old West.
Brolin's manly gravitas and deadpan humor bumps any film up a star, so I'm cool with the fact I couldn't see what was going on in any of the night action scenes, and I especially liked the overall lack of rape or inordinate torturing, which makes it all relatively suitable for children and sensitive feminists, of which I'm both. Rather than kill Hex and Fox when he gets the chance, Malkovich just chains them up like those self-defeating supervillains who used to work for Batman and Robin, allowing for easy escape and vows to return same Hex time, same Hex channel. Though based on the low rate of returns, Hex won't be back, ah reckon.
But I read the DC Jonah Hex comics as a kid and they were okay; they endeavored to combine old west stuff with DC's safe but diverting horror ala House of Mystery / House of Secrets. That was all well and good but his horrid scar, which has left a pointless strand of flesh connecting his lips, made me think of too many gross lunchroom incidents. THE WILD WILD WEST is a clearer ancestor of HEX's new look in the film version, which doesn't seem to make sense, but then again steampunk is as steampunk does, and in the end, what counts is Fox and Brolin play it as deadpan straight as Adam West and Burt Ward before them, and that the villain Malkovich hams it up old-school, which is how it should be. Best part, the soundtrack isn't annoying or cliche'd John Williams recyclables, HEX was probably longer at one point, and got edited down like it was a Cantonese Kung Fu film after a trip through the Miramax miracle dub-and-cut threshing machine. Maybe there will be a director's cut? I'd buy it if it went up to 111 minutes!
In the end, though, what makes HEX almost worthwhile is the exposed layers of racist red state confusion in having a hero be a ghostly avenger from the Confederate army. In order to prove he's not racist he buys all his steampunk ordinance from an African American 'Q'-type, who makes sure we know--via expository dialogue-- Hex was never big on the whole slavery thing even though he wore the grays. He just fought the North because they were trying to tell him what to do. And Hex doesn't like being told what to do... unlike the rubes who follow the feudal doctrines of the quick buck that made JONAH trimmed to the point of near-incoherence, or the people enthralled by Fox News, who basically let an old Australian billionaire tell them what Americans think. Emancipation redaction operation alpha, engage!
Seeing the beholden mess our country's in, it may be hard not to root for the evil Malkovich rather than Brolin's Hex--who is a bit too much like the Robert Ryan character in THE WILD BUNCH, hunting down the anti-corruption rebels on behalf of evil congressmen--after all Col. Malkovich doesn't rape people, and he's into cool explosions and fighting the powa. Maybe he's right, and people who vote against their own best interests like hypnotized lemmings are the poison of democracy. In fact, no maybe about it. Then again, maybe we're all a little bit Jonah Hex too in our taciturn refusal to grant ourselves basic human rights; we like to keep one foot in Hell just so the other seems, by association, almost heavenly. Sometimes talking to the dead and watching TV are really one and the same and though JONAH HEX bombed with critics, it flew for me. I hope Hex comes back, and maybe in that, as in so many other things, I ride alone... but at least I'm not a slave... except to whiskey, and Megan, and mortality, and my own helpless rage against the ceaselessly gushing flood tide of base pasteurized moronic idiocracy that stifles our land's true grit.