Remake This: Jonah Hex (2010)

Oh, this hurts to look at.

Josh Brolin. John Malkovich. Michael Fassbender. Michael Shannon. Aiden Quinn. Upon reading those names, one could be justified in assuming that I just listed the cast of a well-acted, award-winning film. If you just made that assumption, I apologize for misleading you, because Jonah Hex is not that type of movie. It’s more of the joyless, grating, incredibly stupid, heartbreakingly disappointing type of movie. The tragedy? It totally didn’t have to be. Let’s talk about the sad, sad, tale of a great comic book antihero and the terrible movie he didn’t deserve.

SOME HISTORY ABOUT THE CHARACTER

I own this issue. It’s lovely.

Jonah Hex, created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, is a beloved and very unique DC Comics character from the 1970’s. At the same time that the Western genre of film was transitioning to its revisionist period (Jeremiah JohnsonLittle Big ManThe Outlaw Josey Wales, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller all came out during the 70’s), Western comic books were also following the trend and becoming more violent, cynical, and melancholy.

Introduced in the pages of All-Star Western before landing a starring role in Weird Western Tales and eventually his own eponymous title, Jonah Hex was a rough character. He was raised by Apaches, he fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and he unintentionally got his fellow soldiers killed when he tried to surrender to Union forces. Later, half of his face was hideously scarred in a duel to the death with an Apache warrior. These experiences hardened Hex into a cynical loner, and he became a ruthless bounty hunter. And yet he often tried to do right by good people when he came across them, which usually ended up causing more suffering for everybody. Hex was on the run from his past and he didn’t much care for his future; he was just trying to make an honest day’s living by killing people who deserved it. Like a lot of revisionist Western fiction, Jonah Hex defied the traditional American view of the Old West as a heroic place full of noble, hard-working men embodied simpler, purer times. If you’ve seen The Outlaw Josey Wales, this description might remind you a bit of that movie, but interestingly enough, Jonah Hex first debuted in 1972…four years before Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece! I’m not saying that Hex was the inspiration for it, but it IS an intriguing idea, yes?

Anyways, Hex has continued to be a favorite among comic readers. His original title was cancelled in 1985, but he starred in a very strange series (simply titled Hex) that had him time-travel to a post-apocalyptic future and fight zombies; in my opinion, it’s worth a read just for the weirdness. In the 90’s, he starred in several miniseries that followed the precedent set by Hex and combined Western and supernatural/horror themes (In one such miniseries, called “Riders of the Worm and Such,” the creators parodied two famous albino musicians, which led to a lawsuit and…oh, just look it up here if you want the details. This is getting too weird). In 2005, a new critically-acclaimed Jonah Hex series was started, and it introduced a lot of new fans to the character. When DC cancelled all of their titles for The New 52, they brought back the old All-Star Western series, which stars Hex. Even though he didn’t regularly interact with DC’s modern-day superheroes, Hex has appeared through flashbacks and time-travel in the original Batman cartoon, as well as Justice League UnlimitedBatman: The Brave and the Bold, and his own DC Showcase short film (I believe it was included with the DVD of Batman: Under the Red Hood). So there you have it. Comic fans love him. Western and action film buffs SHOULD love him. Sounds like a good idea for a movie, right?

WHAT HAPPENED?

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that I’m not a stickler for accuracy when it comes to big-screen comic book adaptations, and I stand by that. The source material is a good jumping-off point, but if you can tell a good story and retain the essence of the characters without aping other people’s work, you totally should. That being said, if you miss the point of what makes your protagonist special, you are in trouble (and so is your audience).

When I heard there was going to be a Jonah Hex movie, I thought “Awesome!” They’ll probably use the original adventures from the 70’s and 80’s as a reference and get the Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti from the current series as creative consultants! Maybe they’ll even write the script! It’ll be a great throwback to Clint Eastwood’s Westerns and maybe it’ll even rescusitate the genre!” Then I heard that Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the geniuses behind the Crank series and the abysmal sequel to Ghost Rider (not a very high standard to meet, guys), were going to writing the script, and I got nervous. If the Jonah Hex movie was going to be an introspective character study or a redemption story or have any legitimately dramatic scenes whatsoever, why on earth hire the guys behind this? And then the director was announced. James Mangold? Nope. Michael Mann? Huh-uh. William Friedkin? Of course not! Then who? Why, Jimmy Hayward, of course. You know, the guy who directed Horton Hears a Who? You know, because nothing goes together like this:

And this:

I tried to stay positive. Tried to trick myself into believing that Jonah Hex would be a decent film. I mean, the cast list looked great (with the exception of Megan Fox, but she was playing a prostitute, so maybe it would work!). But then the movie poster you see at the top of this page was released. What? Well…Josh Brolin and Michael Shannon wouldn’t do this to themselves unless it was a good career move, right? And then…the trailer. Oh, the trailer:

Yeah, it was hard to stay optimistic after that. Anachronistic rock music. Ridiculous gadgets. Wretched and unnecessary special effects. I don’t know why the studio listened to Hayward, Neveldine, and Taylor when they insisted on completely ignoring the source material and getting their inspiration from The Wild Wild West movie instead of The Outlaw Josey Wales, but we all suffered for it. As a loyal DC Comics fan, of course I saw it in theaters, and of course I was shattered. It was awful, a “comic book movie” in the worst way: light on plot, heavy on loud, dumb action scenes. In the next few sections, I’ll break Jonah Hex down and tell you what I did and didn’t like. Rest assured, that first section won’t be long.

THINGS I LIKED

1. Some of the actors do a good job. Josh Brolin really swings for the fences. He and Michael Fassbender are in a different movie than the rest of the cast. Jeffrey Dean Morgan turns in a nice, understated performance in a cameo as Hex’s now-deceased best friend. Will Arnett plays it straight as a military man who recruits Hex to save Washington D.C., and somehow he works as a buttoned-down authority figure. I can’t even comment on whether or not Michael Shannon did a good job, because he wasn’t in the movie long enough for me to tell.

2. Jonah Hex’s origin is updated nicely. In the comics, it takes a long time to find out how Hex came to be the man he is. It’s a good story, but it would take a lot of time to squeeze it into a movie. But I have to say that, for the most part, the version that Neveldine and Taylor went with isn’t too shabby. It’s just streamlined: Hex, tiring of constant fighting, realizes that his unit’s guerrilla tactics are getting out of control, so in order to save lives he switches sides and stops them. His best friend Jeb Turnbull is killed, and his commanding officer Quentin Turnbull (also Jeb’s father) goes nutty, escapes capture, and vows revenge. Years later, he find Hex, kills his family, and brands the initials “QT” on his face. Hex refuses to look at those letters every time he sees his reflection, so he uses a heated ax to burn them away, severely disfiguring the right side of his face in the process. It’s a good origin: it stays true to the spirit of the character, keeps the essentials, and discards the extraneous details. Unfortunately, things immediately go off the rails after that, but I’ll elaborate in the next section.

3. Megan Fox is pretty. She doesn’t really do a good job in this movie; her accent is quite annoying, to be honest. Her character contributes very little to the plot. But she is very pretty, that I will grant you.

Horrifyingly tight corset notwithstanding. Jeez….

WHAT NEEDS TO NOT BE IN THE NEXT (HYPOTHETICAL) JONAH HEX MOVIE

Rather than simply list things I didn’t like about Jonah Hex, I will also elaborate on why I didn’t like them and what I WOULD like to see. After this movie came out, I immediately added it to my “Movies to Make/Remake/Reboot in the Unlikely Event that I Come Into Money” list. So here’s my list of mistakes in Jonah Hex and how they can be avoided:

1. Use your cast better. As I mentioned, Josh Brolin, Will Arnett, Michael Fassbender, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are good in this movie. But Aiden Quinn is totally wasted as a boring President Grant and John Malkovich is phoning in his performance from at least three states away at any given time. Megan Fox is about what you would expect. The biggest waste of all is Michael Shannon. Yes, Michael Shannon is in this movie. The academy award-nominated star of Revolutionary RoadBoardwalk EmpireTake Shelter, and the upcoming Man of Steel. One of the most intense and interesting actors currently working in Hollywood. It was first announced that he would play Doc Cross Williams, the voodoo-practicing owner of a sinister travelling circus in Jonah Hex, and that he would be a secondary antagonist (Cross Williams was originally introduced in the 90’s in a spooky Jonah Hex miniseries called “Two-Gun Mojo”).

When the movie came out, Hex did visit a travelling circus, but guess what? Michael Shannon gets MAYBE three seconds of screen time! WHAT?! Well, it turns out that Neveldine and Taylor wanted to use his character in sequels, so they got Hayward to cut out his scenes. Yes, that’s right: those two coked-out morons were so arrogant that they decided to save their best actor for sequels that weren’t even guaranteed. Hey guys, you know what MIGHT have been a good way to get the studio to commit to a sequel? A MEMORABLE PERFORMANCE BY AN ACADEMY-AWARD NOMINATED CHARACTER ACTOR! The lesson to be learned here is simple: make good casting choices and be certain you have a director who knows how to get good performances out of them. Oh, and USE FAMOUS ACTORS IF THEY’RE ALREADY CONTRACTUALLY OBLIGATED TO WORK FOR YOU!

2. Don’t complicate things with bizarre unexplained bad CGI  magic. There’s no magic in the original Jonah Hex stories. The 80’s and 90’s set a precedent for that sort of thing, so I don’t think it can be said that the filmmakers behind the movie ignored the source material, but they made a very odd choice in deciding to give Hex the power to communicate with the dead. Right after his origin is laid out in the first few minutes of the movie, it’s explained that Hex was rescued from certain death by Indians and nursed back to health, but apparently because he had been “on the other side” for too long, he gained the ability to touch dead people and bring them back to life, but only for a few minutes before they turn into ashes, and the longer they’ve been dead, the longer it takes for them to turn into ashes because they’ve been….never mind. But trust me, it’s confusing, it doesn’t fit the tone of the movie, especially since the villain is the non-mystical Quentin Turnbull and he’s using a big cannon that isn’t magic at all. Necromancer Hex feels unnecessary. Worse than that, it feels like a cheap excuse for Neveldine and Taylor to throw in some EXTREME special effects and sped-up footage. It distracts from the rest of the story. Maybe if Cross Williams were the real villain and Hex actually had to fight zombies or something, but that doesn’t happen.

3. Anachronisms are not your friend. A quick word to Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor: Guys, I know period pieces can be intimidating (especially if you are an idiot who doesn’t want to do any actual research). However, if you are committing to a movie that is set in a specific time and place in the past and there will be people in your audience who KNOW what did and didn’t exist back then, you owe it to them to not ruin things. Maybe you think you’ll be cool and have futuristic technology and deliberate anachronisms as a stylistic statement. Well, stop thinking that. We already have The Wild Wild West to remind us NOT to do that. And if you still REALLY want to throw in some goofy stuff, you should still learn what is physically possible and at least TRY to make the suspension of disbelief a little easier for the audience. And if you really wanted to do a fun, dumb summer blockbuster that doesn’t take itself seriously, you shouldn’t have used a revisionist Western comic about a scarred, cynical bounty hunter who wears a Confederate uniform! AND…even if you STILL wanted to ignore the source material, rip off The Wild Wild West of all movies, and not bother making a movie that takes itself too seriously, DON’T CAST JOSH BROLIN, AIDEN QUINN, MICHAEL FASSBENDER, MICHAEL SHANNON, AND TELL THEM ALL TO PLAY IT STRAIGHT!

I know Neveldine and Taylor have their defenders but…c’mon. Look at them.

Speaking of the source material, here’s the most important thing:

4. Understand your source material. I think that’s the biggest failure with this movie. The Jonah Hex comics are, for the most part, grounded in reality. If there was a gunfight, people would die. There were no futuristic, gimmicky weapons; when a character fired six shots from their revolver, they were out of ammo until they reloaded. No one had Gatling guns mounted on their horse or a crossbow that fired sticks of dynamite or a super-powerful magic artillery cannon that could destroy Washington all by itself (all things that are in the movie). The appeal of Jonah Hex wasn’t in the scrapes he got into: it was in how he confronted the moral dilemmas he found himself faced with, how he outwitted his opponents, and whether or not he chose to learn anything from these encounters.

Everything that happened in Hex’s original adventures, as well as his second series from the 00’s, happened in a historically accurate setting. There weren’t any super-stylized fight scenes or mammoth explosions or plots that threatened the entire nation. Hex’s most important battles were with himself. It usually bothers me when comic book movies take themselves too seriously, but in the case of Jonah Hex, I don’t think the filmmakers took their movie seriously enough. Hex ISN’T a superhero. He’s Josey Wales, Paden from Silverado, and Jeremiah Johnson all rolled into one. This was the one time, THE ONE TIME, when we really needed a comic book movie to be “realistic” and “grounded.” So if Jonah Hex ever rides onto the big screen again, I hope the folks in charge do their research and focus on the man and his demons (metaphorical demons, you guys! NOT ACTUAL DEMONS!). Everything else will grow from that.

IN CONCLUSION

This movie is only three years old. If it feels like it’s been longer, it’s just because it was a huge box office bomb, making back only about a fifth of its $47 million budget, and everyone immediately forgot about it. Which, now that I think of it, is a good thing. Normally, I’d say you have to wait about five years for a reboot, and at LEAST ten for a hard remake, but for me, a reinterpretation of Jonah Hex can’t come soon enough. I know Warner Brothers won’t want to risk another flop, and I know that other DC characters have priority, but hey: it could happen, right?

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about the character, I recommend any of the vintage Jonah Hex stories (many of them are collected in DC Showcase graphic novels), as well as Gray and Palmiotti’s series from 2005-2011. And of course, the latest volume of All-Star Western is only about 20 issues in right now. Check them out.

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Remake This: Krull (1983)

In the wake of the original Star Wars trilogy, the late ’70s and early ’80s saw a wave of movies attempting to cash in on the public’s renewed interest in science fiction and fantasy. On the plus side, we got a revitalized Star Trek franchise. But then, we also got Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, so…yeah, mixed bag. See, the vast majority of movies inspired by the success of Star Wars were pretty…um, uninspired. And most of the ones that did turn out well, like The Last Starfighter, weren’t exactly original. But there were a few such films that stood out, and one in particular that (in my opinion) REALLY stood out. I am of course referring to the awesome Sci Fi/Fantasy mashup that is….KRULL!

What is Krull?

Good question. Krull is a movie set on a distant planet (also named Krull) that exists in an unknown galaxy. I know what you’re thinking. “A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away? How original.” And perhaps you’d be right, if Krull were a desert planet, or one with futuristic technology. But it’s not. Its people use swords; they live in castles and cottages and caves; some of them practice magic (with varying levels of success, but more on that anon). Yeah, that’s right: Krull is a world of high fantasy. At least until…

The Story:

Here’s where things get kooky. Remember how I said Sci Fi/Fantasy, not just Fantasy? Well that’s because, as the movie starts, Krull gets invaded. By aliens. A giant telepathic shapeshifting alien known as The Beast. His ship, a monstrosity called The Black Fortress, touches down on Krull’s surface and disgorges an army of laser-wielding shocktroopers called Slayers. They promptly lay waste to the countryside. Naturally, an army of technologically advanced monsters will make whatever petty quarrel your kingdom has with another kingdom seem silly by comparison; it’s time to unite. The two rulers of Krull decide to do just that. One king’s daughter marries the other king’s son, making the two kingdoms one. Apparently Prince Colwyn and Princess Lyssa have had the hots for each other for a while, so they’re cool with it.

But guess who isn’t cool with it? THE BEAST!!! Slayers attack the castle where the wedding is happening and kill everyone except Colwyn (they meant to, though. It would be weird if they didn’t even try, right?). They capture Lyssa and take her to The Black Fortress, so The Beast can make her his bride. Why? Well, because there is an ancient prophecy about her:  “A girl of ancient name shall become queen, she shall choose a king. Together they shall rule their world, and their son shall rule the galaxy“. The Beast wants to rule the galaxy, so he figures he’ll try the old kill-everybody-they-care-about-and-promise-them-power-on-the-off-chance-they’re-willing-to-overlook-that-whole-killing-everybody-they-care-about-thing-from-earlier trick. So he’s holding her hostage in the Black Fortress, which randomly teleports to a different part of Krull every day, and Colwyn wants her back. With the help of an old seer, a gang of oddly pleasant escaped convicts, a not-very-talented “wizard,” and a brooding cyclops, Colwyn has to find an ancient magical weapon of great power, find the Black Fortress, get inside before it vanishes, fight his way through scary foot soldiers with laserthingies, rescue Lyssa, and kill The Beast. Yeah, it’s pretty intense.

Here’s the trailer:

…Are you still there? Good. I only want people who are committed to this! Now that we’ve weeded out the nonbelievers, let me explain why that wasn’t as stupid as you thought it was.

What’s Great about the Movie:

1. The Premise. One of the things that makes Krull unique is the fact that it’s a mashup of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres. The idea that Krull is in the rough equivalent of our earth’s Middle Ages is really cool; its buildings, costumes, and weapons have a vaguely familiar medieval look about them, but they’re also exotic enough to remind us that this is another planet. It also becomes clear as the story unfolds that Krull has its own unique history, traditions, and legends and myths.

2. Almost Everyone Gets a Character Arc. Seriously, this does not happen often in movies. Hell, these days we’re lucky if the main character in an action movie has any character development whatsoever. But that’s what’s so fascinating about Krull. You’ve got the main protagonist going through the basic Hero’s Journey arc, the convicts who are reluctant to help him but eventually come to care about their mission, the bungling wizard who overcomes his cowardice, the melancholy cyclops who embraces his destiny; I could keep going, but just see the movie instead of reading about it, okay?! GO!

3. The Score Is Amazing. James Horner really knocked it out of the park on this one. There’s a reason why the man’s got two Oscars under his belt (I could list all the movies he’s done, but you could just Imdb it if you’re curious, so why bother?).

4. The Writer and Director Were Clearly Passionate About Their Project. Peter Yates directed this movie. He was responsible for some of the best dramas of the late 20th century, but with Krull he was able to balance lighthearted adventure and dark fatalism perfectly. He also got the actors to take their roles seriously when it would have been easy to play it camp. As a result, the film is fun, but a little more introspective and atmospheric than other Star Wars rip-offs. I think Yates’ direction is largely responsible for that. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also give credit to Stanford Sherman, the writer. He wrote a lot of camp; it’s what he was most well-known for (I won’t lie and tell you all of his work is good, but I will say that Sherman’s post-Krull fantasy, The Ice Pirates, is a hilarious and self-aware parody of the genre). Maybe it’s because he had so much experience writing deliberately silly scripts that he was able to give Krull the right amount of self-awareness. Not enough to make it a comedy or parody, obviously, but enough to remind the audience that its primary goal is to entertain, and we don’t have to take it too seriously.

5. It’s Fun to See Famous Actors, Both Old and Not So Old. Like any good post-Star Wars sci-fi/fantasy, Krull features a few veteran classical actors slumming for a paycheck. But it also has a few faces modern audiences will certainly recognize:

SEE! ON THE FAR LEFT! IT’S CHARLIE BUCKET’S TEACHER! oh, and Liam Neeson too, or whatever.

5. The Set Design of the Black Fortress is Inspired. The Beast’s lair/spaceship/love nest is super trippy. The environment constantly changes, whether it’s to keep intruders out, or prisoners in. At times, it seems like the place is alive. Maybe it is.

So Why Remake It?

My philosophy for remakes is simple: you should only attempt it if you think you can tell the story of a movie  in a better or more unique way. I try to reserve judgment on remakes until I’ve seen them, because there’s a good chance that they might be just as interesting (if not more so) than the original, like the newer versions of The Italian Job or Ocean’s 11. But in order to justify a remake, the original has to have untapped potential. After all, what did the remake of Clash of the Titans do besides suck all the joy and fun out of a silly but earnest fantasy film? And did the new Fright Night really say anything that the original didn’t? With Krull, though, there is potential to expand on the story, especially since its concept (more than the actual story) is the best part. Since I just mentioned some of the great strengths the original has, let’s look at a few ways a remake could tell the story better:

Better Special Effects. The original has some great set designs, as I mentioned earlier. If they ever remake Krull, they should NOT use green screens or depend too much on CGI when practical effects will do. Some of Krull‘s greatest triumphs are in the clever application of practical effects (there’s an especially well-done scene with an evil shapeshifter that terrifies me to this day). However, there are several moments in the film where I can’t help but feel underwhelmed. The magic effects look bad, and many of Krull’s locations and wildlife aren’t nearly exotic as they ought to be. I think some creative applications of modern motion picture technology would take care of that.

2. Exploit the Setting. Some movies spend too much time with exposition. Krull doesn’t spend enough time with it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s really cool to imagine what another planet would look like during its equivalent of a medieval period. What would be different about it? What wouldn’t be different? Unfortunately, in the movie, we don’t get much more than a taste. Most of the action occurrs in the wilderness, with a small group of heroes against The Beast and his Slayers. We don’t get to see the cities and villages of Krull, nor do we know why the two kingdoms were fighting one another to begin with. We can tell from conversations and quick glimpses that Krull has its own religious ceremonies, ancient myths, prophecies, holy people, and even a class hierarchy. But the movie just assumes we know all this stuff, and doesn’t bother to elaborate on it (I’d like to think that Sherman had a lot of Krull’s history and mythology figured out in an early draft of the script, but I haven’t researched it, so it may just be wishful thinking). I propose a few scenes and some dialogue here and there to make us understand Krull a little bit better, especially when it comes to the magic users we meet in the film and their past. Oh, and there should also be a ton of animals (domestic and otherwise) on Krull that are unique to that planet. They don’t have to look SUPER different, but just enough to remind us that we’re not on Earth. Finally, I think we need to see a much larger portion of the planet; different continents, different races, different climates. Even if it’s just for a brief amount of time, this establishes The Beast as a threat to the WORLD of Krull, not just the (apparently white, mostly male) kingdoms of Krull.

3. Jettison the Damsel in Distress Subplot. This one’s easy. Even though Lyssa is smarter and a little more determined than your average damsel trope, she spends the entire movie trying (halfheartedly) to escape from The Black Fortress. Except for the beginning of Act 1 and the end of Act 3, she doesn’t have much to do. So let’s not have that. Instead, at the opening of the film, let’s have Lyssa be a warrior. She’s a battle-hardened commander for her father’s army. Instead of showing her and Colwyn falling for each other off-screen, maybe they meet face-to-face in battle and almost kill each other. Over time, as their kingdoms fight again and again, they develop a grudging respect, then a friendly rivalry, then…something more. On their wedding night, almost everybody gets killed, but the two lovebirds escape, and they decide to kill The Beast. This way, instead of simply rescuing a princess, the motivation for storming the Black Fortress is revenge and security, and Lyssa and Colwyn are equals on this quest. Sure, The Beast still wants to seduce Lyssa, but that’s part of a bigger campaign of psychological warfare he’s inflicting on all of the heroes. Now we don’t see the Black Fortress (at least not from the perspective of the heroes) until the end of the movie, which increases the uncertainty and terror as the adventurers force their way in.

That’s all I would suggest. I honestly think, if these changes are implemented, everything else would fall into place.

In Conclusion…

At the time of this post, Krull is about 30 years old. Hollywood is fast running out of movies to mine for ’80s nostalgia, and I think this one is better-remembered than people realize. And hey, even if nobody remembers it, they’ll still pay to watch a movie that looks exciting enough…Right? Well, it doesn’t really matter if they remake Krull. I don’t need an excuse to wax nerdrantical about movies I like. I never have; you can ask literally anyone who knows me.

Need I reiterate that this is all opinion-based? I guess I will. It is. As you have undoubtedly discovered, I am heavily biased in the movie’s favor. HEAVILY. So there you have it. I unironically enjoy Krull a great deal and I recommend it to anyone who likes space operas, high fantasy, or both. Give it a watch and let me know how you feel about it, and whether you feel a remake is a good idea. Let me know in the comments which films you think deserve to be remade, and what you would change if you could. Feel free to stay if you want, but I’m going to get a sandwich. And no, it doesn’t matter when you read this. Odds are, I’m getting a sandwich then, too.

P.S. At the time of this posting, Krull is available, in its entirety, on Crackle. I hope it stays there for a while, but who can say? Pay attention to their description of the film; it’s accurate. And don’t listen to those Poindexters at Imdb and Rotten Tomatoes!