Angelina Jolie leaps back into the action game with "Those Who Wish Me Dead"
Those Who Wish Me Dead
Starring Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen, Jake Weber, Medina Senghore, Jon Bernthal and Tyler Perry. Directed and co-written by Taylor Sheridan. Streaming at the Cineplex Store and other digital retailers. 100 minutes. 14A
A survival thriller may seem counterintuitive to launch 2021’s summer movie season, given the pandemic nightmare the world is currently enduring.
Nevertheless, Taylor Sheridan’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” starring Angelina Jolie as a Montana woodlands firefighter, offers satisfying escapism, perhaps because its many onscreen dangers aren’t viral. Forest wildfires, lightning strikes, hot-zone skydiving and water hazards make this movie a cinematic array of potentially fatal outdoor activities.
Watching it is like entering the world’s most deadly amusement park, especially when a gigantic forest fire rages across the screen, set to Brian Tyler’s pulsing score.
There’s also that most American of threats, bad men with guns, the biggest danger of all.
The latter archetypes are chillingly represented by Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”) and Nicholas Hoult (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), as ruthless hit men Jack and Patrick. They’re out to silence 12-year-old Connor (Finn Little, an engaging Aussie import), a kid who knows too much about a cabal of corrupt public figures.
(In a cameo role, Tyler Perry plays the boss of the bad guys, who approaches poetry with his menacing brevity: “Assume catastrophe and act accordingly,” he instructs.)
The action kicks off in Florida. A crusading district attorney gets a violent message from the corrupt cabal, delivered by Jack and Patrick, who are as cold-blooded as characters from a Michael Haneke movie.
Connor and his dad, Owen (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant who had been assisting the DA, take to the highway to try to escape the pursuing assassins, all of them heading in the Hitchcockian direction of north by northwest.
You may well be wondering how Angelina Jolie fits into this. Rather abruptly, as it turns out, but fittingly, given that her character Hannah is a woodlands smoke jumper, a Montana Forest Service firefighter who skydives into infernos to put out blazes.
Ignore her Hollywood-perfect makeup, which somehow remains intact for most of the movie. She cusses, carouses and drinks like her male colleagues and leaps into flames alongside them.
Hannah has been marking time high above a remote forest in a fire watchtower. She’s atoning for her personal hell, seen in flashback, of three youths who perished in a blaze she failed to properly assess.
It wasn’t really her fault — fires are by nature unpredictable — but guilt doesn’t require truth to inflame the conscience.
Something like a chance at redemption comes into view in Hannah’s binoculars when she spots Connor, bloodied, frantic and in need of someone to trust, tramping through the forest below her watchtower.
The link between events in Florida and Montana has now been established. It will also draw in the local sheriff, Ethan (a sturdy Jon Bernthal), and his six-months-pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore, a revelation), who runs a wilderness survival camp.
This is a lot of people to pull together, but writer/director Sheridan is a past master of ensemble adventures in rough terrain, as seen in such earlier work as “Wind River” and TV’s “Yellowstone.” He was also the writer of the border-crossing drug-war thriller “Sicario” and its sequel.
Sheridan co-wrote “Those Who Wish Me Dead” with Michael Koryta, author of the source novel, and Charles Leavitt (“Blood Diamond”), but there’s no sense they butted heads in the brisk flow of the narrative.
The film zips along so nicely, in fact, that at times it almost seems to forget that Jolie is the lead name on the marquee and that she came out of semi-retirement as an action star — “Salt” happened in 2010 and her two “Tomb Raider” films were years before that — to once again storm across the screen.
This she surely does, proving her prowess with a firefighter’s axe, although no one can upstage the fury of Mother Nature. A forest fire set by Jack and Patrick (these guys truly are evil) rips through much of the movie, demanding attention from the humans who have been busily running, chasing and shooting. Cinematographer Ben Richardson, who previously worked with Sheridan on “Wind River” and “Yellowstone,” provides breathtaking overhead and up-close visuals of the blaze.
“Those Who Wish Me Dead,” made for the biggest possible screens, really makes me wish movie theatres were back in operation. This won’t happen for a while, in Ontario at least, while we deal with our raging real-life pandemic inferno. 🌓
(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)