Director: Taylor Sheridan Starring: Angelina Jolie, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Jon Bernthal, Medina Senghore, Finn Little Running Time: 100 minutes
Taylor Sheridan can dine out in Hollywood for some time to come still off the back of his Sicario script. The films that he’s gone on to direct – some good (Hell or High Water), some less so (Wind River) have struck a similar tone to that star-making work, serious but pulpy adult thrillers, simple stories of heists, hunts and murders that tried to ground themselves in real-American lives, the kind of stories of people struggling and suffering that you’d be as likely to see on John Oliver as on the big screen.
Sheridan’s latest Those Who Wish Me Dead is on the same page as those stories, but maybe comes in a paperback. It’s the kind of movie you used to get all the time in the 90s – your Peacemakers, your Paybacks, your Patriot Games – that relied on a few scenes of action and the wattage of a good star. Action thrillers, made for grown ups but not too high-brow. Those Who Wish Me Dead delivers this like a ready-meal, nothing mind-blowing but nice, filling and gets the job done, thanks to some strong storytelling from Sheridan and the draw of Angelina Jolie.
Jolie has had a few relatively quiet years out of the spotlight compared to her time as one of the biggest screen stars of the 2000s, but she’s never lost her ability to command a scene, a striking, confident figure who here quite capably draws out charm and pathos from a fairly by-the-numbers character. Jolie plays Hannah Faber, a smokejumper wracked by doubts and survivor’s guilt. As a protagonist of the ‘best-of-the-best’ variety, Hannah has been lost ever since she failed to prevent several deaths during a forest fire, now spending her time drinking, wisecracking and putting her boots up on things, a Kurt Russell hero of yesteryear in almost every way. She’s thrust back into action when she has to protect young Connor, who is on the run through the woods away from mysterious agents Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult, who want no loose ends from the shady but vague operation that involves them killing Connor’s father, destroying evidence and reporting, shadily and vaguely, to their boss Tyler Perry. The goons set a fire, Smokey the Bear also on their list of enemies, starting a race against time for Jolie and her charge to get out of danger and hopefully into the hands of sheriff deputy Jon Bernthal and his pregnant wife Allison.
That’s a lot of plot for just over 90 minutes of movie, and while each individual element is enticing on its own, the action jumps quickly from one strand to another a little too quickly for any one to settle. For a movie pitched as ‘Angelina Jolie vs Fire’, there’s a lot more going on, and it’s both an advantage and a disadvantage. The characters here are mostly well-drawn and likeable, and Sheridan takes his time building up their relationships and making them worth caring about. Jolie so often brings that right mix of tough and vulnerable and this performance is no exception, Hannah is a free spirit gone sour, with a death wish that only Bernthal can see and PTSD she’s barely keeping at bay. Young Connor is a clear chance for her redemption, and the dynamic between Jolie and young actor Finn Little develops into a charming bond. Bernthal is one of those ‘now-we’re talking’ character actors we have too few of in Hollywood these days, an insta-lift for almost any movie, and he’s very entertaining to watch alongside relative newcomer Medina Senghore as wife Allison, so much so that you almost don’t blame the narrative for hopping back to them, even when it makes things choppy and lacking in momentum.
It’s all very watchable, but never much more than that, a departure from Sheridan’s more politically shaded stories but not miles worse off for it. Characters are thrown problems and in their capable hands, we enjoy watching them got solved, especially the problem of the film’s Bulk and Skull baddies Gillen and Hoult. Both could have notched Those Who Wish Me Dead up another half star if they had just a little more personality; as it is they feel like a wasted opportunity, snarling suits who don’t amount to much but who possibly get the most screen time. Where Sheridan has previously gone into fairly extensive detail outlining character decisions and motivations, here Gillen, who never met a moustache he couldn’t twirl, lights an entire forest on fire as a distraction for the cops. You know how these kind of thrillers are always described as ‘taut’? This is an example of a looser variety.
The work of smokejumpers, and the terrifying fate that Hannah and Connor race to avoid is engaging stuff, but the story doesn’t dwell on much for very long, which could prove frustrating if it didn’t throw another set piece or character at you quickly enough. There’s charm and excitement, but a lingering feeling that there could be more left on the table. Still it all makes for an entertaining time at the cinema. Jolie shines as an action star, with that particular screen presence that says she always knows exactly what she needs to do, but doesn’t always know if she can do it. Like its characters, Those Who Wish Me Dead keeps moving and mostly keeps its head together. Like its blazing forest, its gone in a flash and doesn’t leave too much behind to grow from.(3 / 5)