Producers: Steven Zaillian, Garrett Basch, Aaron L. Gilbert, Kevin Turen and Taylor Sheridan Director: Taylor Sheridan Screenplay: Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt and Taylor Sheridan Cast: Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen, Jake Weber, Medina Senghore, John Bernthal, Tyler Perry, Boots Sutherland, Tory Kittles and James Jordan Distributor: Warner Bros./HBO Max
Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel, as adapted by him, Charles Leavitt and director Taylor Sheridan, makes for an intermittently exciting but too often lethargic action movie in this Angelina Jolie vehicle. One has to admire the proficiency with which Sheridan, production designer Neil Spisak, cinematographer Ben Richardson, editor Chad Galster and composer Brian Tyler have contrived the sequences in which characters rush around trying to avoid being caught in the flames of a rampaging forest fire, but otherwise “Those Who Wish Me Dead” doesn’t often make one’s pulse race.
Jolie plays Hannah Faber, a Montana smokejumper who acts tough as nails among her mostly male colleagues but is haunted by an incident for which she blames herself for reading the wind wrong—an error that caused the loss of several innocent lives. Her off-time recklessness leads to her solitary exile to a remote watch tower.
But Hannah’s not the person pointed to in the title. That’s Connor Casserly (Finn Little), a twelve-year old boy whose protector she becomes. Connor is the son of Owen Casserly (Jake Weber), a financial analyst who uncovered evidence of massive crime by oh-so-important people and turned it over to a Florida district attorney. A mysterious boss (Tyler Perry, who does not appear until late in the film) has hired two ruthless assassins, brothers Jack and Patrick Blackwell (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult). They kill the DA and his family and then go after Owen.
But he takes Connor from their hideaway and they flee to Montana to seek help from Ethan Sawyer (Jon Bernthal), a local cop, and his wife Allison (Medina Senghore), who runs a survival camp Owen once attended. Unfortunately, the Blackwells get there sooner and ambush father and son on the highway, killing the man (and a hapless passerby) while the boy flees into the forest. They follow him, rightly believing that Owen had entrusted the evidence they’re seeking to him, and Connor runs into Hannah. She takes it upon herself to lead him to safety, which means trying to outrun the Blackwells, who not only threaten Ethan and Allison but start a forest fire to cover their tracks.
The lengthy pursuit that follows has some tense confrontations—and, especially toward the close, some pretty nasty violence. But it’s an up-and-down affair, since e frankly the Blackwell brothers prove a fairly inept pair, prone to leave corpses profusely in their wake without worrying about the mess they’re leaving behind. There are simply too many shots of them stalking through the brush, arms outstretched to point their firearms, while their quarries elude them over and over again. Though it moved more deliberately, Sheridan’s prior directorial effort, “Wind River,” generated much more tension.
It also doesn’t help that the characterizations lack the depth that both “River” and Sheridan’s script for “Hell or High Water” possessed. Though Jolie handles the physical aspects of her role with ease, Hannah remains a pretty cipher, and though Little is an adorably poignant tyke, he doesn’t exude much personality either. Hoult and Gillen are rather anonymous villains, but Bernthal and Senghore brings some welcome grit to their parts—especially the latter, who though pregnant proves that Allison’s unquestionably a fine teacher of survival skills.
“Those Who Wish Me Dead” never bothers explaining its MacGuffin—the evidence Owen collected—nor why the folks whose criminality it would unmask couldn’t find some less bloody, chaotic a way to suppress it, or at least hire some more competent hit-men to implement it.
But that lack of information isn’t the main problem with the movie; the primary difficulty is that it comes across as a peculiarly perfunctory action piece that isn’t energized even by the fire sequences that are its best element. Among recent movies about smokejumpers, it’s definitely superior to John Cena’s threadbare “Playing With Fire,” but that’s not saying much.