Angelina Jolie plays a Montana smoke-jumper turned fire-watcher caught up in protecting a child from profession assassins in “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” a strained and clumsy thriller that stands out as the first misstep from director and co-writer Taylor Sheridan, of “Hell or High
Water” and “Wind River.”
Jolie’s the boss of a macho, swaggering team that parachutes into difficult to reach fires, and she’s just been re-assigned after an accident in the field. No more swapping jokes and stunts and a flask with the boys. Fragile Hannah is assigned to a fire tower to think about what she’s done — obsess about it.
Her ex (Jon Bernthal, the muscle of the movie) is sheriff, and inclined to keep an eye on her, seeing as she’s almost been demoted out of her career. But he’s got a survivalist training school operator wife (Medina Senghore, the heart of the movie) at home, so he’s got his hands full.
And that’s before the Big City Accountant (Jake Weber) grabs his kid (Finn Little) and makes a run for…Montana. If the movies have taught us nothing else, it’s that accountants “know things.” If those things were to ever get out, there’d be trouble. He kind of explains that to the kid.
“Trouble” is the elite, sadistic hit squad sent to head them off. Aiden Gillen is the leader, the sort of goon who’ll start a forest fire to cover his murderous tracks. Nicholas Hoult is his not-much-nicer sidekick.
You’ve already guessed that the kid winds up alone, that the assassins bull-in-a-china-shop the locals to find him, and that Hannah is his best hope for surviving to tell his dad’s secrets.
For a movie that keeps its smoke jumping angle in the background, Sheridan works in some good fire effects and a little solid woodlore. Dad imparts the most basic get-out-of-the-wilderness strategy to his kid. Hike downhill, find a creek.
“Creeks lead to rivers, rivers lead to towns.”
Jolie is years-removed from her action lead days, so she does what the aging men in the genre do — swaggers, wisecracks and smirks to compensate. The effort shows, and she’s required to justify in dialogue how somebody as plainly model thin, “skinny,” as her is able to do this sort of superhuman work. Not buying it.
Senghore, of TV’s “Happy!,” and Bernthal (he was in Sheridan’s “Wind River”) are so good together, and separately, that you almost wish they were the leads and starring in a better movie.
Gillen, of “Game of Thrones” and the “Maze Runner” movies, is a perfectly credible killer, as his Hoult.
But Jolie isn’t playing the most interesting character, and she tends to “Maleficent” this — relying on the cheekbones to do the heavy lifting for her.
The movie’s gone wrong before Hannah’s sentenced to her tower, “a 20 by 20 box on stilts with no toilet,” a radio and great views. Weber’s Dad character sputters on and on in some cryptic monologues about what he knows and about whom, and those give the film’s early scenes a serious case of whiplash, as those monologues are intercut with scenes where the regal Jolie is meant to be mixing it up with her “crew,” and seems about as at home doing that as you’d expect.
Even the third act fights and shootouts can’t pull “Those Who Wish Me Dead” back from the you-know-what.
MPA Rating: R for strong violence, and language throughout
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Aidan Gillen, Jon Bernthal, Nicholas Hoult, Medina Senghore, Jake Weber, Finn Little and Tyler Perry.
Credits: Directed by Taylor Sheridan, script by Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt and Taylor Sheridan, based on a novel by Kortya. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 1:40