Review: Angelina Jolie’s star power sharpens the uneven thrills of ‘Those Who Wish Me personally Dead’
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It’s one of those arcane Hollywood mysteries that we have not, the past couple of decades, been frequently regaled with a new installment of some explodey escapist franchise that’s built around Angelina Jolie’s unparalleled ability to run and smolder simultaneously. Her stint as Lara Croft sputtered out after only two movies; the “Mission: Impossible” series, which is built around Tom Cruise’s somewhat similar facility for working while looking determined, is at six and counting.
Perhaps it is partly Jolie’s own preference — no long-term entanglements to stop her pursuing some other avenues. But the fact continues to be, she is a great action superstar who has never been in an excellent action movie.
Taylor Sheridan’s “Those Who want Me Dead” in which Jolie plays a whisky-swiggin’, trash-talkin’, trauma-suppressin’ smoke jumper who will be parachuting into a raging Montana wildfire as the movie starts, is not going to change that. However, not because it’s no good; rather, because it’s hardly a good action movie at all, in spite of its high-octane kickstart and an early, misfit-crew-facing-natural-disasters vibe that is straight out of “Twister” or even “Armageddon. ”
Instead, it’s one of the genre hybrids for which Sheridan offers carved out a small, mid-budget, ‘90s-throwback niche: part eco-thriller, part western, part noir and part soulful, twangy drama. Once again, as in the particular screenplays for “Sicario, ” “Hell and High Water” and (his directorial debut) “Wind River, ” Sheridan’s peculiar, refreshing talent is based on writing characters that observe the strictest archetypes culled from across the genre spectrum — the tortured tough guy/gal, the ornery sheriff, the ruthless hitman — and then animating them, like a screenwriting Dr . Frankenstein, with strangely human foibles, strangely human hearts.
Here Sheridan is co-writing with Charles Leavitt and Michael Koryta, the author of the book on which “Those Who want Me Dead” is based. However the off-kilter sensibility remains, plus it gives the film, which is most straightforwardly a thriller, an air of thoughtfulness, plus a slightly mournful edge that even the plot’s silliest hairpins can’t quite dull.
Hannah (Jolie) is a veteran wildfire-fighter with the Montana forest program, who is haunted by the memory space of the kids she didn’t save from that one blaze that time (I know how this sounds, but stick with it). She is tough and respected within her otherwise all-male crew, possibly because she’s the type of woman who oozes a sort of machisma and who would never, given the choice, take a seat on a chair the right way round. But also possibly because she’s Angelina Jolie — the celebrity is as committed as she’s ever been but however grungy her face, it’s nevertheless that face, and it’s hard to see it as common. Hannah has been put on lookout duty in a watchtower — seemingly a demotion associated with some sort — much to the amusement of her ex girlfriend or boyfriend, Ethan (Jon Bernthal), a nearby sheriff’s deputy whose spouse, Allison (Medina Senghore), will be heavily pregnant.
Meanwhile, all the way over in Florida, two hitmen, played in a fabulously weird twin act (reminsicent of traditional noir “Murder by Contract”) by Aiden Gillen plus Nicolas Hoult, are switching their murderous attention to Ethan’s brother-in-law Owen (Jake Weber). He’s a forensic accountant who has uncovered a maguffin’s worth of incriminating proof against Important People (represented by Tyler Perry in the brief cameo and an excellent suit), and who continues the run with his younger son Connor (an excellent, stoic Finn Little). Owen, hoping they’ll be safe and sound with Ethan, gets as far as the fringe of the do before the hitmen catch up, plus soon Connor is by itself and traumatized in the woods with two psychos in the heels. Which is when Hannah finds him.
The relationship between Hannah and Connor is the ostensible center of the film, but each actors, and Sheridan’s keyed-down approach, mute the sentimentality. It’s unusual and stimulating that while the pair will bond — perhaps revealing personal sob stories an impression more quickly than is wholly convincing — the relationship is not the surrogate-mom/surrogate-son type we might expect.
Indeed Hannah, seeing that portrayed by Jolie, does not have any maternal aura whatsoever; her relationship with the boy is without a doubt protective but never making use of; sometimes it’s even tinged with irritation. “No wonder you’re skinny, ” he admits that to her at one stage. “I’m good, ” she responses, her wry expression italicizing the word, and for a fleeting instant our sense of Jolie the movie star works together with our sense of the character, not against it. Each, it seems, have been judged for being thin so often that the reaction is weary, ironic.
It’s a nice small moment in a film much more impressive in its little times than in its grander arcs. A trick of Sheridan’s, aided by the rich, often picturesque but never obtrusive cinematography from DP Ben Richardson, is to hang on a picture for just one more beat than is strictly necessary for story purposes. Connor plays having a grasshopper, and the camera timepieces it as fascinatedly when he does: a sequence that does nothing except let the movie breathe briefly in sympathy with the boy. And when Gillen’s hitman decides to set fire to the forest and throws a flare onto its tinderbox-dry floor, there’s an additional reaction shot from him, as the flames shoot up: a little grunt of satisfaction that will speaks volumes and almost accounts for this irrational act. Several men just want to watch the planet burn.
But perhaps the most obliquely satisfying aspect of Sheridan’s approach will be how, when the heroism songs stops playing, everyone will get a chance to grab a chair (Jolie obviously swinging hers around and under her). Hannah might be the protagonist, and the one given one of the most mission-standard redemption-seeking arc, plus it being Jolie, she works and smolders (sometimes literally, having been struck by lightning) with the best of them. Yet Ethan gets his minute, as does Connor’s Dad, even the hitmen — whose intriguing dynamic could gladly power some sort of existentialist spinoff movie of its own — have their own thing happening.
So when it comes to the most overtly heroic imagery — teetering over the ridiculous and involving a midnight horseback ride, a rifle and a hardboiled kiss-off line to an enemy — it belongs not to Hannah, but to Allison. However, this is what you get with an action-drama-hitman-thriller-noir-western-disaster-movie-star-vehicle that isn’t actually any one of those things: “Those Who Wish Me Dead” — an enjoyable, absorbing, characterful testament to shuffling the entire deck of genre exhibitions, and then politely setting this on fire.
‘Those Who Wish Myself Dead’
Rating: R, for solid violence, and language all through
Running time: one hour, 39 minutes
Playing: On HBO Max and general release