Angelina Jolie returns to our screens to play a firefighter in this '90s-esque throwback from writer-director Taylor Sheridan
In many ways, this neo-western thriller from writer-director Taylor Sheridan is the perfect fodder for which to make the long-awaited return to the cinema. After all, Those Who Wish Me Dead captures the muscular thrills of the brainless but often exhilarating 90s blockbuster – a job it does a little too well in places, right down to the underwritten characters and an unmistakable sting of inauthenticity, not to mention the casting of a huge star in Angelina Jolie.
As one of Hollywood's most prolific screenwriters, Sheridan has spent the last few years almost single-handedly reviving the modern western. His smart scripts, packed with clever narrative subversions and trope-turning twists, include Sicario and Hell and High Water, while his debut as a writer-director, Wind River, showed he had talent behind the camera, too. The conceit driving this latest effort, based on the novel by Michael Koryta, is right up his alley. It's a fun ride, but the execution is slightly sloppier, the overall effect more fleeting.
As though engineered backwards from a Post-it note reading “thriller set during forest fire?,” the somewhat overcomplicated plot concerns two assassins, played with delicious, relentless malice by Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult, tasked with killing everyone involved in a vaguely described political corruption case, including a forensic accountant (Jake Weber) and his son, Connor (Finn Little).
Fleeing into the forest after his dad is brutally killed, Connor teams up with “smokejumper” Hannah Faber (Jolie), who's having a tough time of her own due to a recent tragedy faced in the line of duty (revealed to us via lazy flashbacks), and so has been assigned to a fire tower overlooking the expansive Montana wilderness.
Meanwhile, hardened cop Ethan, played by Jon Bernthal, is also drawn into the conflict, which escalates enough as to involve his pregnant but resourceful wife, Allison (Medina Senghore), who runs a nearby survival school. And of course, the assassins go to the extremes of setting the forest alight to flush Connor out…
Jolie's casting here has a strange effect. A distinctly luminous presence, there's no denying her movie star charisma, and it's great to have her back playing an actual human woman after six long years. In a way, though, her simply being here presents a problem of its own kind. With that perfect hair and those feline features, she radiates such an overwhelming sense of stardom, of celebrity, that it's impossible to watch her delivering a line without thinking: it's Angelina Jolie… it's Angelina Jolie…
This is a movie that excels mostly in its staging of slick action scenes, though, satisfying riffs on the taut gunfights of the Coens' No Country for Old Men (to which Sheridan's work has always been hugely indebted). It doesn't fully sell the flaming inferno aspect of it all, no part helped by some shoddy CGI and a narrative that tends to get distracted from the heat: Sheridan seems more interested in his villains than his heroes, meaning Jolie is at times sidelined by the director's keenness to get back to whatever it is they're doing.
Still, this absolutely works in the moment, a welcomed blaze of blockbuster entertainment to reignite the flames of cinema, moving briskly from one tightly-written scene to the next, with a particularly thrilling middle section. Just don't expect it to sear itself into your memory.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is now showing in UK cinemas.Where to watch