Jonah Hex

“Jonah Hex” is based on a comic book, but instead of a superhero it’s about a tortured soul who lost everything and now pursues justice by killing people. This puts it in the sorry company of movies like “Ghost Rider” and “The Punisher,” where grim humor and single-minded vengeance substitute for heroics. I’m not saying this kind of movie can’t be good, but it sure doesn’t happen very often, and it sure doesn’t happen with “Jonah Hex.”

Set in the 1870s, it stars Josh Brolin as Mr. Hex, a former Confederate soldier whose family was killed by the dastardly Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), a Confederate officer who went rogue and started committing war crimes on the order of burning hospitals. Turnbull disfigured Jonah’s face, then died before Jonah could get revenge on him. Left with no other outlet, Jonah Hex got a job that would allow him to vent his consuming hatred for all humanity: cable repairman. No, kidding, he became a bounty hunter.

Also, having almost died, he can now talk to the dead. That’s how it works. That is his super power. Also, he can get shot a lot of times and not die. Not sure how, or if, this relates to the talking-to-dead-people thing.

Anyway, turns out Turnbull faked his own death for reasons the movie doesn’t see fit to share with us, and now he’s back, working on a weapon of mass destruction that he plans to use on Washington D.C. as revenge for the Confederacy’s defeat in the war. (The Rebels were nothing if not sore losers.) Pres. Grant (Aidan Quinn) tells his top Army guys to enlist Jonah Hex in finding and stopping Turnbull. Hex is good at this sort of thing anyway, and he’ll be especially motivated when Turnbull is the target.

One of the Army guys, Lt. Grass, is played by Will Arnett. I don’t know why you would cast Will Arnett in a serious role. When Pres. Grant tells Lt. Grass to recruit Hex, Lt. Grass insists his own men can handle the job, saying, “Sir, as you know, my unit is the very best.” I don’t know why you would cast Will Arnett in a serious role and then ask him to say, “Sir, as you know, my unit is the very best.” Several poor decisions were made here.

So: Hex will help the Army capture Turnbull before it’s too late. You know the drill. And believe me, you do know it. Apart from Jonah’s corpse-whispering abilities (which don’t actually help the story much), this is a standard Old West shoot-em-up with the usual plot devices and little creativity. Hex has warm feelings for a prostitute named Lilah (Megan Fox), which allows Turnbull to use her as bait and leverage. There are gunfights and ambushes and brawls. And so on.

Megan Fox is given little to do as Lilah, and John Malkovich — who was born to play campy villains like Turnbull — is wasted, with minimal screen time and not enough scenery-chewing. But Josh Brolin, who has become newly beloved in recent years, does about all he can with his thinly written character, making the most of the comically menacing things he says to people who stare at his ground-beef face. “What happened to your face?” some jerk sneers. Hex shoots him, then says, “Cut myself shaving. What happened to yours?” Brolin gives moments like that the right mix of Old West stoicism and modern playfulness. It’s a small thing, but a movie as flat and uninspired as this one needs all the help it can get.

The director is Jimmy Hayward, an animator (“Horton Hears a Who”) making his live-action debut, and the screenplay is by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the writer-director duo behind the insane “Crank” movies. This could have been a good combination, but “Jonah Hex” turns out to be not as lively as a cartoon, nor as fully committed to its mayhem as “Crank.” At 80 minutes in length, it feels half-formed, with things like Jonah and Lilah’s back story and everyone’s access to advanced weaponry left unexplained. It’s a quintessential paycheck movie, made not because someone had a terrific vision for how to adapt the story but because a studio owned the rights and thought they could make some cash from it. Let’s prove them wrong, shall we?

C (1 hr., 20 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, a lot of violence, some grisly images.)