Critics always gripe that movies are too long and could stand some pruning.
Then you get the occasional movie, like comic-book adaptation “Jonah Hex,” that’s too short – so short, and so bad, you cringe at the thought of how awful whatever ended up on the cutting-room floor must be.
Take away the eight minutes of end-credits, a lengthy prologue sequence built around comic-book panels and some repetitive flashbacks of action we’ve already seen, and there’s barely an hour’s worth of actual movie in “Jonah Hex.” And that’s using the term “actual movie” generously.
Part of what’s missing is the harder-core violence chopped to get “Jonah Hex” down to a PG-13 rating, the theory being that an R rating scares off customers. That’s the same mistake made on Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” last year.
Raimi’s horror tale of a woman consigned to hell by a gypsy curse needed the blood-and-gore elbow room of an R rating, and who knows? If it had not been defanged by the PG-13 rating, maybe people would have shown up to see it.
So too “Jonah Hex,” starring Josh Brolin as a disfigured 19th-century bounty hunter with his own connections to hell, needed to take the gloves off.
This is a story about a man who watched his wife and son burned alive, communes savagely with the dead and vows unholy vengeance against the man responsible for all his troubles.
The subject matter alone will scare off a sizable chunk of moviegoers, while the PG-13 rating will annoy many fans of the comic book. So the filmmakers have shot off both feet by telling a nasty story then dusting it in sugar.
Brolin’s Jonah Hex (people always seem to call him by his full name, as though the extra syllables were needed to fill out the movie’s running time) is a Confederate Civil War veteran who turns to hunting down bad guys after his family is immolated by evil-for-the-sake-of-being evil villain Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich).
Turnbull also horribly scars Jonah’s face with a branding iron. The whole experience somehow leaves Jonah able to bring the dead back to life momentarily with a touch, so he can interrogate them (this arbitrary superpower comes with its own phony rules that include the dead’s ability to see the comings and goings of anyone they knew. Handy trick for a bounty hunter looking for info).
With Turnbull aiming to unleash a doomsday weapon to destroy the United States as it celebrates its centennial, Jonah is enlisted by the federal government to stop the madman.
The action feels choppy and unfinished, continually and jarringly stacking up a colossal body count without showing the killshots that made so many people dead. Such prudishness does not serve a supernatural story set in bloodthirsty pioneer days.
Jimmy Hayward, who directed the animated hit “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” and was an animator on “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and other beloved Pixar films, makes his live-action directing debut on “Jonah Hex.” That career progression is so puzzling, it’s probably best to leave it alone.
The movie’s adapted from the DC Comics series by screenwriters Mark Neveldene and Brian Taylor, who wrote and directed Jason Statham’s “Crank” action thrillers. That career progression makes sense.
As for the careers of the on-screen players, well, Brolin’s had a good run lately, and he does try to bring gravity to Jonah, even if you can’t understand a lot of his dialogue because of a speech impediment caused by his facial wound. You can’t blame Brolin too much for trying to land his own action franchise.
Megan Fox – yes, her again – co-stars as Jonah’s love interest, Lilah, a prostitute with a heart of cardiac muscle, and a brain apparently made of the same material. Her role is skimpier than the necklines of her dresses, and she delivers her lines as robotically in the 1870s as she did in the “Transformers” flicks.
There’s nothing wrong with Malkovich working for a paycheck, as he’s clearly doing here, only he’s not working very hard. Turnbull is an utterly forgettable villain who seems to have two modes of speaking, boring and really boring.
Aidan Quinn mucks his way through a few sad moments as President Ulysses S. Grant, while Will Arnett adds some comic tension by doing nothing as a stonily straight-faced military aide. You just expect Arnett, a master of smarm in “Arrested Development,” “30 Rock” and other roles, to lose it and burst out laughing at any moment.
Wish he had. “Jonah Hex” could have used some laughs.