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OPINION: "Who Killed JONAH HEX?"
Author: Robert Reineke
June 22, 2010
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EDITOR'S NOTE: You can read BOF's review of JONAH HEX HERE. - "Jett"

As bad as the $5,085,000 estimated domestic gross for JONAH HEX was this weekend, I think the 14% on the "Tomato-Meter" at RottenTomatoes.com is worse for Warner Bros. At least if the reviews were kind, you could perhaps see the film making back its relatively cheap budget eventually via secondary streams. But the reviews make Warner Bros. excuses of “you shouldn’t ugly up a handsome star,” “Megan Fox’s 15 minutes are up,” “Westerns are old news,” etc. come off as cheap and hollow. What should have been a straightforward spaghetti western homage was essentially bungled all through production into a movie that nobody wanted to see.

I have a copy of the original script by the CRANK team of Mark Neveldine and Bryan Taylor. It’s not perfect by any means, the climax is a bit underwhelming for one, but it’s a script with focus and vision. Jonah Hex is a gritty bounty hunter out for revenge against Quentin Turnbull and it follows his adventures across the southern United States as he tracks Turnbull down. The script is very violent with a streak of dark comedy. It’s a hard R, exploitation picture that could be done relatively cheaply and have a strong identity if left alone. It would never be a blockbuster, but it certainly could have been at least as successful as CRANK. A solid actor in Thomas Jane was interested in the lead role and it seemed to be moving ahead on a fast track.

And then Warner Bros. decided that they should aim bigger and it all fell apart.

The signing of Josh Brolin to headline JONAH HEX immediately raised expectations. It’s not often that you can sign an Oscar nominee that appears to be a rising star. But, shortly thereafter, Neveldine and Taylor were out and it certainly looked like it was linked to the signing of Brolin. And with the pair, a particular vision for the film was lost. Neveldine and Taylor have plenty of faults as filmmakers, but the one thing they do have is a distinctive voice. Time and time again, the best comic book adaptations have come from filmmakers with a particular vision, whether Richard Donner, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, or Christopher Nolan. Replacing the people that had brought Jonah Hex from an idea to the verge of production didn’t have to be a fatal blow, but it clearly took out the creative members with the clearest vision of what Jonah Hex should be. And everything that followed seemed to exist in a vacuum of leadership.

Director Jimmy Hayward was hired, fresh off the animated HORTON HEARS A WHO! was hired. And, in retrospect, it’s hard to see what he brought to the table. Jumping from animation to live action happens, Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam being two notable examples, but in general animators who make the jump have distinct attributes in the first place. HORTON HEARS A WHO! doesn’t have the imprint of an auteur as much as someone who can respond to committee notes. And, it’s clear he was over his head.

Bad decision, followed bad decision from there on out. Cut the budget. Raise the budget. Open it up against TOY STORY 3. Hire Megan Fox -- who isn’t much of an actress in contemporary pictures -- and ask her to be an old west prostitute in a period picture? That’s classic miscasting based on marketing considerations. Compound it with John Malcovich clearly slumming it for a paycheck, and if Malcovich isn’t bringing his A game he’s not a draw, and the idea of casting stars backfired on the production. It wasn’t necessarily the actors’ fault, but it’s clear that other than hiring Michael Fassbender, not much attention was paid to performance rather than names on the poster.

Even then, the film might have survived. But then Hollywood committees got to work and there was no one apparently willing to say “No. That’s a bad idea.” Every idea that was “hot” -- save vampires and werewolves -- was shoved in. Suddenly Jonah Hex could talk to the dead. And he was wielding exotic weapons ala the holy shotgun in CONSTANTINE. And, instead of a personal story of revenge, Jonah Hex has to save Washington D.C. from a destructive superweapon. And, instead of going for an R rating, it was hacked to pieces to ensure a PG-13 rating. Which is not to say that an R-rating would necessarily be more mature, but it was at least consistent with the original script and vision which the story had drifted far away from and a violent western would at least have been unique instead of generic. Combined with a director in over his head, you had a creative mess with nobody competent at the head to steer it into a movie that was a cohesive whole instead of a case of too many cooks in the kitchen.

In the end, instead of a sharp little exploitation western, Warner Bros. displayed a classic case of not understanding the property they had greenlit in the first place. They aimed all of their “four quadrants” marketing clichés at a production while failing to understand the core appeal in the first place. Apparently, Warner Bros. no longer knows how to do small action films. Which is ironic, considering Warner Bros. gives a lot of leeway to their big tentpoles to allow directors to pursue a particular vision. If you can’t compete on budget with the big summer blockbusters, you better offer something else compelling. And instead JONAH HEX was sent to death through a thousand committee meetings and a director, in over his head, without a clear vision or authority to say no.

And that’s something Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment need to remember. The only way the smaller characters of DC Comics will succeed is with people that understand their appeal in the first place. Committee decisions are no substitute for directors and writers that have a vision and the talent to back it up.

Robert Reineke is a Civil and Environmental Engineer residing in Wisconsin.
He’s earned a BS and MS degrees from the University of Wisconsin
and has been reading Batman comics since the 1970s.
He’s of the firm belief that there are plenty of Batman comics written
before Frank Miller that are worthy of discussion.

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