Magic balls are the lynchpin of Jonah Hex‘s finale. Specifically, big black explosive balls which are detonated by small orange glowy balls. Where did these balls come from? How do they interact with each other? And from what are they constructed? Feel free to make up your own explanations since none are proffered by Jimmy Hayward’s film (maybe they’re demonic vessels containing the angry souls of fallen soldiers! Or they’re containers filled with that most destructively rancid of liquids: Sunny D!). Regardless of the surrounding story’s supernatural elements, this ball-on-ball WMD (laughably referred to as simply the “super weapon”) is an inexplicable mystery that makes no sense from any vantage point, especially given that it exists in 1876, and can only be utilized via a gargantuan ship-mounted six-shooter cannon that facial-hairy Confederate “terrorista” Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) seems to have constructed in approximately two days time. And from plans originally drawn up by Eli Whitney. I am not making this up.
Jonah Hex, however, definitely appears to be making itself up as it goes along. Screenwriters Neveldine and Taylor long since disowned their script, and the finished product certainly suggests a tale horribly warped by rewrites and a lack of firm direction. So many ideas, conflicts and subplots are hastily smushed together that, were it not for the narration of bounty hunter Hex (Josh Brolin) or the familiar-faced supporting players (Will Arnett, Wes Bentley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Lance Reddick, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Michael Shannon) whose roles have been cut to ribbons in the editing room, there’d be no making heads or tails of this adaptation of the DC comics series. Which isn’t to suggest that what did make it on screen is the least bit lucid, though the basic plot (scored, thuddingly, by Mastodon) does clearly revolve around Hex’s quest for revenge against Turnbull, who years earlier—as payback for Hex killing his son, which was done in order to prevent the Civil War destruction of a hospital—made Hex watch his wife and son burn, and then left him with a nasty mark of Cain on his right cheek.
A subsequent flashback implies that after his face was mutilated, Hex further burned it with an axe blade to remove Turnbull’s cattle brand insignia, but it’s hard to tell, since Hayward’s 82-minute film speeds through every scene with a squirmy restlessness that suggests it badly needs to pee. Thanks to his near-death experience at the hands of Turnbull, Hex can converse with the dead, and despite his being a former Confederate, we’re informed that he wasn’t a secessionist or a supporter of slavery. Whew! Commendable politics notwithstanding, though, Hex still comes off like a third-rate Man with No Name in bad ‘50s horror-movie makeup. Looking uncomfortable in cheek-and-mouth prosthetics that minimize his expressiveness, Brolin is reduced to lame one-liners and riding on horseback in stilted slow-mo, along the way having to listen to blather about a host of undeveloped clichéd themes (the frontier’s transition into industrialized modernity, the similarity between his and Turnbull’s murderous methods) while engaging in PG-13 violence that’s amazingly free of actual blood, culminating with a man being killed by rotator blades without, as a follow-up image makes plain, suffering any visible injury.
Even with its fleet runtime, Hayward’s paranormal western drags for stretches, including every Hex hallucination about a big red clay clearing where he does imaginary battle with Turnbull. And also, during every moment that Megan Fox, as the Feisty Whore with a Soft Spot for Hex, struts around in a lungs-crushing corset or appears in close-up, her face digitally airbrushed to resemble a newly buffed Corvette hood. Unintentional comedy inevitably arises, as when Hex—saved from gunshot wounds by faceless Native Americans—exhales ghost crows, and then a spits out a real live one, before sitting bolt upright and screaming “TURNBULL!”
Throughout, Jonah Hex is a narrative mess, too busy combining Old-West tropes with sci-fi contraptions (in a manner reminiscent of Wild Wild West), as well as racing between nonsensically matched present-past incidents and spastic fights, to bother with genuine characterizations. Thus, the proceedings fall back on defining heroes and villains through weird facial blemishes, not just burn-victim Hex but also impish neck-tattooed Irish killer Burke (a giddy, game Michael Fassbender) and Turnbull, whose bushy mustache and mutton chops seem to change appearance ever-so-slightly from one shot to the next. They’re disfigured faces fit for a disfigured film.