‘Jonah Hex’ forgets the suspense 

Terse of speech and leathery of scowl, Josh Brolin seems a natural fit as a whiskey-soaked Wild West gunslinger in the unforgiving tradition of Jonah Hex, an ex-Confederate soldier out to avenge the murder of his wife and child. But he, like Hex, deserves a sturdier vehicle than this.

Though not among the company's most iconic heroes, Hex has been an on-again, off-again member of the DC Comics universe for nearly four decades. His reward is roughly 80 minutes of screen time in which we learn the origin of his hideous scars and notoriously quick trigger finger.

Accused of betraying his fellow Rebels when he refuses to torch hospitals and churches, Hex is forced to watch as deranged General Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) sets his family ablaze.

Branded with the mark of a deserter, he’s abandoned to die, but American Indians revive him, leaving him trapped — not unlike Keith Richards — between life and the hereafter.

There is, however, an upside to this. Hex can communicate with the dead, and he uses his afterlife connections to track Turnbull and his homicidal, tattoo-covered henchman (Michael Fassbender) to the nation’s capital, where they plan to detonate a silly-looking doomsday device.

Intones the president (Aidan Quinn) gravely: “The very fate of the nation may rest on the shoulders of Jonah Hex!”

Brolin is the right man to play Hex, who drinks his way from one town to the next, always ready for a fight. The problem isn’t his performance, which is spot-on, or even his lively supporting cast, including Fassbender and a feisty Megan Fox. (Malkovich, who often cloaks his malevolence behind a veneer of casual indifference, merely seems bored.)

What handicaps the otherwise unsinkable Hex is the irritating weightlessness of his story, which unfolds haphazardly and devoid of suspense. Neither director Jimmy Hayward nor screenwriters Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor seem seriously interested in any of the characters. Hex himself is a surly thug, long on snappy one-liners but short on insight; his enemies are similarly impenetrable. They exist only to do what he won’t — that is, die.

Besides his talent for post-mortem conversation, Hex’s only superpower is his ability to stay alive — riddled with bullets, his face and chest a battered testament to hard living, he boasts (albeit with a sort of weary resignation) that he can’t be killed.

The filmmakers take their best shot, but even as our hero limps defiantly into the sunset, one can’t help wondering if we’ve really seen the last of him.

Jonah Hex

Two stars

Starring Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnett
Written by Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor
Directed by Jimmy Hayward
Rated PG-13
Running time 1 hour 25 minutes

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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