The James Clayton Column: Jonah Hex, Malkovich and miserable critics

Jonah Hex may have been widely slated, but James found himself enjoying it. Are film critics, James wonders, just too harsh and cynical these days?

Once upon a time in the West (if Louisiana qualifies as the West), good men, bad men and very ugly men trembled anxiously as a nation headed into its centenary under the looming clouds of a great menace.

That menace – a ‘terrorista’ according to the Mexicans – had weapons of mass destruction, a touch of sophisticated thespian camp and hordes of unquestioning henchmen hellbent on destroying America. The man’s name: Malkovich.

Actually, his name was Quentin Turnbull but he’s played by John “Malkovich!” Malkovich and, unfortunately, every time I see him the first thing to come into my head is “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich”.

President Grant calls upon scarred and haunted bounty hunter Jonah Hex to deal with the man who wants to mark the country’s 100th anniversary by firing devastating orange balls at Washington D.C. Poor show, Turnbull. Hex prefers to be self-employed and no one wants your Ironclad of Annihilation interrupting the 4th of July fireworks show.

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If the Jonah Hex movie had allowed time in its meagre 81 minutes for further governmental planning, they could have watched Being John Malkovich for research. Rule number one of combat against psychopath scoundrels: know your enemy.

All they had to do was travel through the door on the 7½th floor of that building in New York that operates as a portal into the veteran actor’s mind. While in there, they could have rearranged his wiring, possessed the unsuspecting antagonist and screwed with his brains until his head exploded in a scene straight out of Scanners.

Loads of hassle and inept spy bumbling wouldn’t have been necessary to stop the UK becoming a giant prison complex if someone had gone through Malkovich’s mental doorway at the start of Johnny English. Likewise, the antihero of Jonah Hex would have had an easier time and Turnbull would have been thwarted in a flash of twitching and flying brain tissue.

The voices saying “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich” every time said figure appeared on screen were not, however, the most unnerving thing about Jonah Hex, nor was it the visible faults or the presence of Megan Fox. What irked me as I left the cinema, having enjoyed an entertaining enough movie, is the fact that I wasn’t worried for the soul of the traumatised title character. Instead, I came away full of concern for film critics.

Oh, poor old Jonah Hex with his disfigured features, dead family and traumatic memories. He constantly snarls because he has no choice. The majority of critics, however, haven’t had a burning poker thrust through their cheeks and are able to smile and talk without sounding like a Southern whisky-soaked version of the Elephant Man. Plus, they haven’t been through the American Civil War, which was no fun for anyone.

I came into Jonah Hex without having read the original DC comics, but I’d absorbed the reviews that had almost unanimously slated the supernaturally-tinged Western tale. On a popular website that tallies ‘professional’ opinions and discerns whether a film is ‘rotten’ or ‘fresh’, Jonah Hex ends up falling on the bad, mouldy side of the veg wagon.

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The film does have a lot of problems. There’s no space in the rapid runtime for characterisation or depth, the plot is holey and has nonsensical bits and it does feel like it’s been rushed through production. Nevertheless, it’s not awful. It’s a decent enough quickie comic book flick with some cool dream sequences, a Mastodon soundtrack and the marvellous Michael Fassbender bringing A Clockwork Orange-esque ultraviolent charisma to proceedings.

There’s also a sequence where Native Americans do healing magic on Brolin’s Hex and after more trippy dreaming, his bullet wounds start steaming and he coughs up a crow. That, brothers and sisters, is a sight worth seeing.

There are nice ideas and concepts here, it’s just the execution is botched and the film was released before they’d fixed up the kinks. It’s not The Dark Knight, but it’s not trying to be.

Do we really need to pour so much scorn on it when, to breakdown the plot, it’s about a mutilated lone gunslinger who can speak to corpses, has an impossibly clean hooker as a girlfriend/nation-saving sidekick and has been hired by the government to stop a megalomaniac bringing down the Union with his special orange glow balls?

It’s ludicrous, but it’s a period pulp fiction movie and it doesn’t have pretence. I can pick at the holes, but I can’t see the point in totally dismissing it just because, like Hex himself, it has some clear pockmarks.

Maybe I’m an undemanding guy or perhaps I’m just tolerant and have a high threshold for junk. I adore schlock movies and crap as much as I love classic cinema, high-art and esoteric, acclaimed pictures. Is my compass of taste and values totally skewed or are the other voices interested in discussing film overly critical and close-minded?

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I remember once reading an interview in which esteemed critic and purveyor of pickled onions, Barry Norman, made an off-hand remark that around “90% of films are bad”. Maybe it was a bad day, but I am flabbergasted that a man who’s lucky enough to have made a living out of experiencing marvellous motion pictures could just dismiss the majority of it as mediocre or, worse, dreadful.

When your thoughts are respected and publicly disseminated, that’s a bold proclamation to make, and it’s a very misanthropic and cynical one. There are a lot of jaded film journalists out there who seem to approach cinema from an immediate position of negativity and antagonism. Remember Anton Ego, the restaurant critic from Ratatouille? If you look across that Rotten Fruit website you can sometimes get the sense that there are whole screening rooms full of multiple versions of him, except they only eat popcorn and the souls of Star Wars fanboys.

I’d like to find the doorway into the mental faculties of some of the most repetitively hateful hack inquisitors to see where the negativity comes from. While there, I could perhaps spread some seeds of love or enthusiasm to strangle those prevailing weeds. Alternatively, I could just remake Scanners for kicks.

It’s surely better to drop the loathing and open your arms to the inoffensive pieces of pulp fiction put up on screen. If you cling onto hate and instant cynicism in the celluloid ocean of astounding visions you will just end up stewing in negativity and stinking more than Barry Norman’s pickled onions.

James’ previous column can be found here.

James’ movie-spoof comic strips are right here.

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