Is Jonah Hex The Beginning Of A Western Revival?
The first thing to ask yourself when wondering whether or not today’s studio system can successfully revitalize the classic Hollywood Western is: Why would they make the attempt? Surely the genre has been worn thin after almost a century of films, serialized comic strips, television shows and novels, right? Not so. In fact, the Western has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the last few years, thanks to fearless and imaginitve filmmakers who have let go of many of the preconceptions of what a Western is, helping to redefine an age-old Hollywood hallmark.
In 2005, Brokeback Mountain
was responsible for flipping the genre on its ear. Heath Ledger’s
Ennis Del Mar was the closest thing to a cowboy (though far from a regular Roy Rogers) in Ang Lee’s
wrenching romance, but the film’s unorthodox narrative set it apart from anything that had been done before. HBO found critical acclaim when it literally reinvented the Wild West, adding plenty of swearing, graphic violence and an impressive Shakespeare-tweaked lingo in the short-lived series Deadwood
. And in the videogame realm, Rockstar Games applied their winning Grand Theft Auto
formula to the American frontier in Red Dead Redemption
, a title that is pulling major numbers across all available gaming platforms and sparking interest in the genre with a new generation.
Still, not every Western is going to strike gold. Quality films like John Hillcoat’s The Proposition
and the Brad Pitt
starrer The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
came and went without a bit of notice, while James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma
remake struggled to break even despite having stars like Russell Crowe
and Christian Bale
in its cast. What these films have in common are categorically conventional Western premises that worked well in the heydays of the 1950s-1960s but seem to deter modern moviegoers, perhaps because they feel as though the horse has been beaten dead.
So, to breath new life into a genre that stands tall as one of the pillars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, studios are adopting an “out with the old, in with the new” philosophy towards developing projects. Instead of making meditative movies questioning the morals and motives of outlaws and lawmen, film execs are looking to craft rock’em, sock’em summer blockbusters set in the Wild West. The change of pace should come as no surprise: if quiet, contemplative Westerns aren’t making money, movie moguls go the other route. They produce big, loud action movies.
That’s what Warner Bros. had in mind when it decided to adapt a largely unknown comic book property from its DC Entertainment stable: Jonah Hex
. The film focuses on a forsaken former Confederate soldier who is commissioned by the U.S. government to thwart the devious plans of a deadly villain. With big guns, big names and a supernatural flare rarely seen in a Western, Warners hopes to have a hit, if not a franchise on its hands. The formula may or may not work, but other companies aren’t resting on their laurels to find out.
DreamWorks and Universal Pictures have partnered to put their own high-concept Western in production. Based on the lauded Platinum Studios graphic novel, Cowboys and Aliens
visualizes a scenario that essentially sends the events of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day
back in time to the late 1800s in Silver City, Arizona, where a local Apache tribe and the general townsfolk must put aside their differences to battle extraterrestrial invaders. By mashing up two successful, time-honored movie genres, they hope to cash in on the American audience’s love of six-shooters and spaceships – and with geek gods like Jon Favreau
and Damon Lindelof on the front lines of the production, it will probably work.
Of course, you don’t always have to break new ground to make a splash at the box office. Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer
are prepping a film based on some guy called The Lone Ranger
. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Oh yeah, and they’ve already got Johnny Depp
set to play sidekick Tonto. It might do well. Paramount Pictures didn’t want to be left out of the pow-wow, so it fast tracked a star-studded remake of the classic John Wayne pic True Grit
with the Oscar winning Coen Bros.
behind the camera (you can catch that one on Christmas Day). New player CBS Films wants a piece of the action too, so it’s looking to give its broadcast network’s 20-season-staple Gunsmoke
the big-screen treatment as well, with A-listers like Brad Pitt
and Ryan Reynolds
already eyeing roles.
It’s a good bet that at least some of these films will be the hits that the studios are banking on, which is all that is needed to start the snowball effect. Nothing draws profit better than pre-sold properties nowadays, so films like The Lone Ranger, Cowboys and Aliens
and True Grit
have an advantage right out of the gate. Additionally, with their iconic portrayals of larger-than-life heroes and universal themes, Westerns are fodder for the fun-loving, film-going masses – they were the blockbusters of their time and, as you can see, are primed to become modern hits as well.