Familiarity Doesn’t Breed Contempt, but Flimsy May
By Noah Gittell
When excellence is not an option, most people will accept familiarity as a substitute. “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” a new HBO Max thriller starring Angelina Jolie and written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (“Wind River”, TV’s “Yellowstone”), is not good, but it’s familiar. It’s the kind of flimsy action-thriller that Hollywood used to turn out by the bucketload in the ‘80s and ‘90s. At one time, Steven Seagal would have starred in it, and you would have watched it on TBS on a rainy Saturday afternoon. That’s in no way a compliment, but familiarity is still a tempting proposition.
Jolie plays Hannah, a firefighter stationed in the Montana wilderness to protect tourists and wildlife from forest fires. She’s a loose cannon, prone to drunken stunts that have earned the respect of her all-male teammates. She also has a past, an on-the-job failure that haunts her psyche but remains unclear to us until a fortuitous third-act monologue. Luckily for her, there’s a scared kid (Finn Little) being chased by two assassins (Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) in her woods — it’s a long story — and they start a fire to try to smoke him out. Voilà, a chance for redemption.
It’s all very contrived, but that’s not the problem. Most movies worth a darn require some serious suspension of disbelief. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” asks the viewer to believe that a forensic accountant — the boy’s father — would be marked for death because he uncovered high-level corruption. In the real world, wouldn’t they just buy him off? The contract killers then pick the strangest possible way of taking him down, shooting him in his car while he drives around a bend on a mountain road. So many things can go wrong with their plan, and most of them do.
Then there’s Jolie herself, who hardly seems like a smoke jumper. With her face stuck in time somewhere around age 35, Jolie is not credible as any kind of roughneck. It doesn’t help that neither she nor the screenplay can decide exactly who she is. There are hints that she’s the kind of eccentric Jolie is best suited for; her strained efforts to connect with the child lead to him calling her a “weirdo” and provide the movie’s only laughs. The rest of the time she underplays every moment, aiming for a stoicism that, given the silliness unfolding around her, seems wildly out of place.
Those around her fare better. The assassins are appropriately menacing. Meanwhile, Jon Bernthal and Medine Senghore, as Hannah’s ex-boyfriend and his pregnant girlfriend, are so compelling they make you wish the film were about them. Senghore is a standout, nailing two of the film’s better fight sequences, moving with grace despite her belly bump, and embodying feminine strength in a naturalistic performance. Finn Little also excels, bringing gravitas and a profound sense of trauma to the underwritten part of boy-on-the-run.
Still, it must seem strange to get this far into the review without mentioning the fire. The marketing materials make this seem like a real firefighter movie, in the tradition of “Backdraft”, “Ladder 49”, or “Only the Brave”. If that’s what you’re expecting — and those movies aren’t exactly great to begin with — you should expect to be let down. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is clearly operating at a lower budget than it needed and there’s really only one scene in which the forest fire factors into the drama. While it does provide a gnarly payoff, the filmmakers spend more of the runtime trying to distract you from the fact that the fire is far away.
It’s not a surprising effort from Sheridan, who has ensconced himself in the modern American West in “Yellowstone”, but “Those Who Wish Me Dead” feels stuck in between a TV episode and a movie, with a screenplay that requires a larger budget than Sheridan was able to procure from HBO.
Despite its general lackluster qualities, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” has earned praise from critics; perhaps because it represents the kind of movie we wish Hollywood would make more of — a star vehicle based on an original screenplay. There are no superheroes here, and no aspirations of a franchise. There will be no “Those Who Wish Me Dead, Two.” It’s just a one-off story with modest aims. A little too modest if you ask me.
“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is streaming on HBO Max.