In 1979, John Wayne quietly passed away in Los Angeles at the respectable age of 72, leaving behind a whopping legacy of 83 Western films and generations of kids who dreamed of becoming rugged gunslingers. Subsequently, scores of American essayists would tie Wayne’s death with the death of the Western film genre, which is a tad insulting considering that one was a living, breathing figure while the other was a specific form of entertainment designed to capitalize on public interest.
The biggest problem with this John Wayne analogy, however, is that the Western genre never croaked the same way its biggest star did.
Instead, it dribbled out slowly, like a geriatric stream of urine that leaked with sporadic and lackluster cinematic attempts all the way until 2010. What happened in 2010, you ask? Jonah Hex, my friend—Jonah Hex and the fateful night I witnessed it displayed live on the silver screen like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring incarnate.
See, Jonah Hex was never just a movie within the context of the Western film canon in the sense that, within that same context, John Wayne was never just a man. John Wayne was THE man, and thus Jonah Hex is THE movie.
Let me explain.
Jonah Hex is a DC Comics anti-hero with a long publication history that served as the loose basis of this box office bomb starring Josh Brolin as the titular gunslinger. 2010’s Jonah Hex is a movie in which everything blows up twice, bad guys get brought back to life just so they can be killed again, and Eli Whitney invented nuclear dragon balls. If that sounds awesome, well, you’re right.
The movie kicks off with a Brolin voiceover explaining Hex’s origins: Hex served as a Confederate soldier but betrayed the orders of his commanding officer, Quentin Turnbull, played by John Malkovich (I know). In retaliation, Turnbull burns Hex’s wife and son alive, melts his face with a hot brand, and leaves him to die (I know). Only, Hex gets revived by a group of Native Americans and comes back with the ability to speak to the dead. I know.
What follows for the next 80 minutes can only be described as something two 15-year-olds in an introductory improv class could come up with using their pubescent frontal lobes: “What if in the opening scene, Jonah Hex kills an entire town with two giant Gatling guns mounted to the side of his horse?” one offers. “YES, AND…what if the whole town simply explodes as he rides away?”
“What if in one scene, he uses two crossbows instead of guns?”
“YES! AND…what if those crossbows shot sticks of dynamite?”
See, Turnbull (who is still being played by John Malkovich, by the way) plans to blow up the entire country, and President Ulysses S. Grant decides that Jonah Hex is the only man who can stop him. Why? The fuck if I know.
As we soon find out, Turnbull plans to accomplish this feat with the help of a massive super-weapon designed by Eli Whitney, who apparently got bored of the cotton gin and moved on to mass destruction without much convincing. The weapon in question is a super-sized cannon that shoots out what can only be described as flaming dragon balls that explode with the fury of a thousand suns. It’s just like in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Meanwhile, Turnbull is joined in his evil quest to scorch the earth by Michael Fassbender, who plays his jaunty Irish assistant, while Hex teams up with Megan Fox, who plays a hooker with a heart of sleep meds.
On his journey to track down Turnbull, Hex gets hooked up with aforementioned dynamite crossbows, among other goodies, by Lance Reddick, who you might recognize as Cedric Daniels from The Wire or just by his Lovecraftian bug eyes. Later, he swings by an underground fight club featuring an acid-spitting reptile man who can do parkour. Yeah, really.
Jonah Hex is the memorial the Western genre deserved AND finally got—a massive obelisk tombstone that pierces like a phallus high into a clear, blue sky. It is the fiery Viking funeral we didn’t know we needed for a genre we mostly didn’t think we wanted anymore. It would be like if the U.S. decided to honor the Columbia space shuttle disaster by blowing up twenty MORE space shuttles, just to show we could. It is glorious, and it is THE death of the Western genre at long last. It is therefore the greatest Western film, not in the sense of “great” as in “excellent” or even “passable” but in a more ancient, Biblical sense of “great” as in horrifying and awe-inspiring all at once, something godly that you want to look away from but can’t even though you know that witnessing its divine beauty could make your eyes melt or insides combust.
Maybe the Western died because John Wayne did, too. Maybe our collective cultural consciousness grew tired of seeing the same recycled plots for over half a century. Or maybe it’s because Jonah Hex put a sweet, sweet cap in its ass. I sleep better believing the latter.