Watching Those Who Wish Me Dead is like stepping back into the 1980s, where movie heroes were introduced while behaving outlandishly. Cheered on by petulant beer-swigging co-workers who display a lack of respect for everyone around them, they mask past traumas with reckless abandonment before being called back into service to save the day. In fact, the opening moments of director/co-writer Taylor Sheridan‘s new film embodies a very familiar brand of movie that directors like Tony Scott once made.
Angelina Jolie plays Hannah, a firefighter and survivalist expert who is haunted by tragedy. For the summer, she is stationed alone in a mountain fire watch tower. It doesn’t take long for her to come across a frightened young boy – covered in blood and on the run. On his tail are two hitman who have killed his father, who, just before dying, managed to hand the boy information that could bring down some of the most powerful people in America. Determined to keep authorities distracted while they give chase, the assassins decide to light a wildfire.
In theory, this is a movie that ought to deliver absolute bang for buck. The premise is simple enough, and with a filmmaker like Sheridan at the helm, it seems like a no-brainer. After all, this is the man who wrote the two Sicario films, Hell or High Water, Wind River, and he’s one of the minds behind highly acclaimed series Yellowstone. He’s an incredible storyteller. So, how could it have all gone so wrong? Putting it simply: this is not a good movie. Even in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way, it barely scrapes by.
Jolie is sorely miscast as this story’s heroine, and both her demeanour and appearance here provide no credibility to her being a firefighter. She simply seems like… like an actress in need of a hit. Fortunately, young Australian actor Finn Little (Storm Boy) plays alongside her and runs laps around his co-stars in the acting stakes. Little is clearly a future star and his depth of emotion here is the film’s saving grace. The remaining cast, mostly hailing from television’s central casting, are adequate. I’ll give a slight nod to Nicholas Hoult, who offers up a reasonably menacing performance as one of the two killers.
Following that first act, which introduces Jolie as an egotistical show-pony, Those Who Wish Me Dead is persistent in trying to recreate a genre that has all but seemingly been lost – or perhaps is better placed in that space of direct-to-video or video-on-demand. And that’s a shame, because this brand of big action-thriller movies is precisely what the big screen needs following two decades of superhero dominance. But alas, the mark is missed, and the movie’s impact might have been bigger had it premiered on a streaming service (and yeah, it pains me to say that).
The script is tacky and painfully gaudy, with cliche-riddled dialogue that is more likely to induce laughter than it is to inspire. Gone is the intricacy and depth of Sheridan’s previous stories, where characters are well rounded and fleshed out, and nothing happens without purpose. In this case, the story hops, skips and jumps from one loose thread to another with no tangible sense of urgency or peril. We’re never really given time to know any of these people; who cares if they die?
It would also be remiss of me to ignore the performance of the fire itself, which roars on command. When Jolie and her young co-star are in immediate danger, the fire tears through the wilderness like a hurricane, making their predicament as tense as possible (which, really, isn’t very tense). And it’s oh-so convenient to cast a mostly-CG firestorm that knows its marks and doesn’t want the limelight, amusingly deciding to wait patiently in the background when there’s bad guys to contend with, fights to be had and exposition to be delivered.
I desperately wanted to enjoy Those Who Wish Me Dead. On paper, it ticks all the right boxes: Sheridan, hitmen, the force of nature, etc. Unfortunately, the result is a mess. It’s a film that belongs down the bottom of your “watch list” on your streaming service – and even then, you’ll likely get more enjoyment out of the similarly themed DTV hit Sniper 8 than this awful dreck.
‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ is in Australian from May 13th. In the US, it opens simultaneously in cinemas and HBO Max on May 14th.