Worst or “Worst”2, Electric Boogaloo: Jonah Hex and Gods of Egypt

jonah_hex03Jonah Hex

Jonah Hex is a film with the confidence, or the indiscretion, to cast its lot in with a doomsday plot revolving around small, orange balls touching big, black balls and spontaneously combusting in an orgy of flames. I can’t decide which pithy phrase to go with: “Science has gone too far” or “What will they think of next? Admittedly, “The best thing since sliced bread” is putting in a pretty game case for itself as well. The surly, salty pandemonium and go-for-broke conceptual and stylistic excess of a Neveldine and Taylor’s script (they of Crank fame) sometimes lays dormant in Jonah Hex, but there’s enough tomfoolery and slippery, ill-considered (or just plain not considered at all) goofiness that shines through in the end. That the screenplay, which was disowned by Neveldine and Taylor prior to film’s completion, is chopped and threshed into hectic, nearly free-associative beats somehow only buttresses the indescribable looney tunes antics on display. It’s like Wild Wild West gone off the deep end.

For some time, Hex’s another-planet nonsense and failure, although probably not intentional refusal, to cater to norms of explanation and sense is actually quite liberating. Loosely ricocheting around a plot involving ex-Confederate soldier Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) scouring the post-war land for the born-again ghost of Confederate general Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich, mutton-chopping it into another dimension), the amusingly sketched-on, schizophrenic backstory informs us something about Hex having turned on Turnbull when the mad general tried to blow up a hospital, which prompted Turnbull to kill Hex’s whole family. Somewhere, perhaps vended from some other movie character presumably played by Nicholas Cage, Hex has also been left with the peculiar ability to speak to the dead – figures who, for reasons of script necessity, are intimately aware of the comings and goings of everyone they ever interacted with while alive.

Again, Hex’s willingness, either accidental or intentional, to bypass its own rules and lob narrative curve balls on a nearly minute-by-minute basis is resfreshingly destabilized in an age of modern blockbusters that painstakingly discuss every contrivance to the audience like they need to explain themselves to even understand what they’re blabbering on about. In an attempt to legitimize themselves, they only trivialize their failures by going into detail about what amounts to bargain-bin plot histrionics. In contrast, Hex brazenly charges forward mostly none-the-wiser, ultimately disintegrating itself with mile-a-minute sudden-impact switch-ups.

For instance, when Hex and Turnbull duke it out late on, the film mercurially decides to scalpel in interstitial material featuring the two men in some crestfallen hell-desert engaging in a similar fight with the cinematography blaring hyper-malleable reds and yellows in the background. Are these post-traumatic flashes of a prior engagement? Visions of a future duel? A mythic de-literalization of the conflict depicted by the filmmakers to embody the spiritual weight of two not-really-undead-but-kind-of-dead-anyway men? Or, did the two men just imbibe in something psychotropic beforehand?

Even if they didn’t partake in the illicit, the film certainly did. It doesn’t emerge unscathed, but one half-admires its willingness to submerge itself in the spry irreconcilability of B-movie chaos, shifting and sliding between logical structures and arriving at a sense of new possibility in every scene where we just plain really can’t fathom what the film might throw at us next. The film even has the gusto to morph should-be-cringe-inducing scenes into endearing curios of platonic nonsense. My favorite is a scene where a free black munitions dealer sells Hex multi-shot dynamite crossbows while procuring a disquisition about the virtues of America and pointing out to the audience that Hex only joined the Confederacy because he didn’t like being told what to do and not because he supported slavery. As though joining the Confederacy out of rogueish individualism and inadvertently supporting the propagation of slavery while also accepting the individual-first Enlightenment values that justified slavery to begin with is actually any better on his part. But, anyway, did I mention the multi-shot dynamite crossbows?

Actually, the lengths the film expends exhaling material about Hex’s hollow post-war nihilism is a delectably incompetent riff on Clint Eastwood’s broken-down, laconic cool, filing itself neatly into the film’s parade of Man With No Name cues that only serve to remind us of films Hex wishes it was. At least Brolin, scowling and filled with subterfuge in his willingness to treat the film as a high-camp exercise in acid-flashback civil-war-reenactment, is along for the ride and clearly having a time. It’s not good, but there’s a manic moxie to its not-goodness.

Score:

How “good” is it?: 1/5 (a special, unique sort of incompetence and far-flung hedonistic delirium that films of this budget seldom have the gall to aspire to these days)

Sure, but how “good” is it?: 4/5 (I got a kick out of the indescribably wacky mania of its demented vivacity as a construct that keeps rewriting itself)

gods_of_egypt_posterGods of Egypt

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Alex Proyas, once a moderately talented quasi-hack with a sense of indomitable style to paint over his failures as a slinger of substance, is now firmly entrenched in the annals of corporate pay-day filmmakers. His latest, Gods of Egypt, is a more-or-less rewardingly stupid violation of common sense that, while incompetent, at least threatens a sort of incompetent energy that is frequently absent from the modern mainstream. Torn between the superhero-myth masturbation of most modern mythic blockbusters (although, in this case, “would-be” must be appended to blockbuster) and Proyas’ own investment in a ‘30s style raffish, swashbuckling affair, the film is on sure bad-movie footing whenever the latter wins out. Again, sometimes what matters less than whether the film is well made is the spirit in which it is badly made, and on an on-and-off again basis, Gods of Egypt is an inconstantly spirited animal of a badly made film.

Graced with the natural disaster of a premise about 10-foot-tale humanoid Egyptian gods coexisting with mostly pitiful humans in an alternate-universe version of the Nile community, the film is blessed with a complete and total willingness to accept its discombobulated premise at face value. Just when the post-300-middle-school-English-class-fan-fiction card was being turned face up on the table, the film ups the ante by casting none other than Australian Egyptian Scottish cracker Hugh Jackman Gerard Butler as the vile Set, a god who has not only assumed control of the Egyptian kingdom but sabotaged all of his nearest competition.

Notable among his victims is Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, gamely doing his best Errol Flynn in a role he understands to be fully baked) who has been blinded but can be saved only by human thief Bek (Brenton Thwaites, awful), who not only recovers one of Horus’ all-powerful eyes but knows the secret entrance into Set’s palace. For the rest of the film, they must cross an infinitely scrolling desert animated so baldly and obviously you half expect Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner to race by as their next combatants.

In addition to granting the god characters (of which there is a surfeit) the combat-ready apparel of gold blood so the film doesn’t bear the excess flab of an R-rating, the film readily ignores – with a gusto, at that – the height difference between the humans and gods in nearly every possible shot it can. Torn between pretending it isn’t a video game and embracing its catatonically pretty style head-on, Gods is not only godly in its incompetence but vaguely heart-attacking inducing in its shaken, slash-and-burn directing as well. As for the much-vilified racial casting in the film (Egyptians played by whities), I must admit that – while the controversy was valid – I am perhaps more afraid of the version of this high-camp anti-history narrative where the characters were actually ethnically-appropriate. That would imply that this particular version of Egypt bears even a passing resemblance to real life at all, and frankly, characters like Set are hardly anything more than Great-White-Hunters lost in an alternate-universe version of the wrong-part of their-chosen continent.

What ultimately befalls the film toward the end is its discretion about fully marinating itself in its own juices; the bargain-bin superhero-riff for Horus doesn’t so much climax as flaccidly sputter out, with a final round that eschews the goofy indiscretion that made the earlier portions of the film so voluminously satisfying. Had any and all vestiges of the corporate monstrosity that Gods of Egypt ultimately is been excised for the film’s more tangential camp pleasures, we’d be in business. The kind of pseudo-camp and B-movie slime epitomized by Gods at its best is ultimately valuable primarily as a detonation of expectations and the totem or monolith of respectability cinema; camp proposes new modes of existence, new tones with which to flexibly react to the status quo. In doing so, it obliterates the assumption that emotions are singular and that events follow linear paths to prescribed emotional reactions. They mess up the joint, in other words.

Gods, ultimately, relegates such slippery tangents to the sidelines. I, for one, am infinitely endowed with delight at Chadwick Boseman’s libidinous turn as the god of knowledge, casting off his “respectable black history figure” type-casting for a venomously post-sexual high-camp turn clearly more aware than anyone else involved of the spirit with which this film ought to be taken. But one character, and a few intermittent flickers of vestigial fancy, are not enough to fully absolve another portentous save-the-world story of its sins.

Score:

How good is it?: 1/5 (just plain bad)

Okay, but how “good” is it?: 3/5 (it’s got spunk, and the incompetence can be delightful, but it refuses to dive headfirst into it’s own oblivion, instead settling for a more light hysteria)

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