Synopsis: A smoke jumper and a 12-year-old boy fight for their lives as two assassins pursue them through the Montana wilderness while a forest fire threatens to consume them all.
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, Finn Little, Aidan Gillen, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, Jake Weber, Jon Bernthal
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Back in the days of “Old Hollywood”, stars would do most anything to get onto the lot for a big studio, a role in coveted film, or to work with the best directors. Just look at all the ballyhoo actresses went through to try to nab the part of Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone with The Wind? Documentaries, movies, and even plays have been fashioned around that race for the role. With the antiquated studio system getting the heave-ho decades ago and stars working as free agents, they were given more autonomy to take command of their own careers and that’s when the real ‘movie stars’ emerged. That’s why it’s often true now that getting a star to board your film sometimes means that the film itself has to bend to their needs and not the other way around.
Take Those Who Wish Me Dead as the latest example. One only has to read the plot summary of author Michael Koryta’s 2014 book to glean that the part Angelina Jolie is playing in the big screen adaptation premiering in theaters and HBOMax isn’t the lead as originally written by the author. As Hannah, a grief-stricken smokejumper assigned to a lone fire tower outpost after a bad decision in the middle of an already unpredictable fire resulted in civilian casualties, Jolie is a natural fit for the role but would have seemed like too big of a star to be playing a supporting character (i.e. second fiddle) to the main cast members.
That’s where Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) comes in. Purportedly brought in to rewrite the script submitted by Koryta and Charles Leavitt (In the Heart of the Sea), he took such a shine to the story and the character of Hannah in particular that when the original director stepped down, he asked Warner Brothers if he could stick around and direct the film too. Promising to get Jolie (Maleficent) for the role, Sheridan was granted the chance to direct only his second studio feature (after 2017’s Wind River, though it may seem like he’s directed more after writing the screenplay for 2015’s Sicario, it’s 2018’s sequel, and most recently Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse). While the script retains the basic ideas found in Koryta’s best-selling novel, Sheridan has largely shifted its focus of characters, jettisoning lengthy plot fabrications that added time and winds up delivering a taut thriller in the process.
Realizing his life and the life of his son Connor is in danger because of what he knows and has shared with the D.A. of Florida who was recently murdered, a widower (Jake Weber, Midway) flees with Connor to the only place he can think of that would be safe, the survival school of his friends Ethan and Allison Sawyer (Jon Berenthal, The Accountant, & Medina Senghore). Unbeknownst to him, sibling assassins Patrick (Nicholas Hoult, Tolkien) and Jack (Aiden Gillen, Bohemian Rhapsody) Blackwell are already in pursuit and one step ahead of them. When Connor (Finn Little, 2067) escapes a backroads ambush, he disappears into the forest and runs into Hannah who, displaced from her fire tower because of a lighting strike, is having a bad day herself.
With the brothers tasked with finding the boy that was given critical and damning info by his dad, a forensic accountant that uncovered some shady business dealings, it becomes a race to keep Connor away from the Blackwell Brothers while avoiding a large forest fire they started to smoke out the young witness and his protector. Needing to overcome her own fears of failure in her recent past, Hannah eschews taking on a total motherly role for Connor and opts instead to treat him like one of her young recruits, pushing him forward as a way to make sure he remains safe in the face of danger.
In moving Jolie’s character to the front of the line, Sheridan does sacrifice some of the business Koryta had involving Connor and the Sawyers…but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have anything to do, either. Senghore in particular is a real find in one of her first major movie roles and by the time you are biting your nails for her character your remember how well Sheridan has written for strong female characters in the past…though he could do to include a few more here and there. What Sheridan doesn’t do as well in Those Who Wish Me Dead is fill in the character details as richly as he has in the past. There’s obviously some deeper and darker things going on in Hannah’s life and connections she has to a few of the men in her squad (not to mention Ethan, Jolie and Bernthal share an excellent scene early on in the film that makes even more sense later) but save for showing viewers her penchant for risk-taking by zoom-zooming in the flatbed of a truck down a highway and then opening up a parachute, the character development is lacking in a lot of places.
The good news is that Sheridan has assembled a fine cast that mostly make it over these hurdles with ease. Jolie’s gamine gait can easily clear unevenly written parts, so she’s taken care of but Hoult and Gillen struggle with defining the Blackwell’s as more than just rote killers. From what I gather, the brothers were the true stars of the original novel (so much so that family members turned up in unrelated novels by Koryta in the future) but the chemistry between the two men is off. Heck, I didn’t even know they were brothers until I read the press materials. Holding much of the movie on his young shoulders, Little acquits himself nicely as a boy that’s seen too much and will pay the ultimate price unless he gets some immediate help.
Running a short 100 minutes, I appreciate that Sheridan kept this running at breakneck speed and think it’s fine how it is but wonder at the same time if Those Who Wish Me Dead might have also benefited from a little extra in its midsection. The opening has a lot of ground to cover and we all know diving right in is always advisable to grab your audience from moment one and as you approach a finale you should never let the ending dip in energy. I’d have been OK with having a few more breaths to take around the halfway mark and I think audiences who are enjoying the film will too. This is above average popcorn entertainment that strikes the right balance in having a movie star paired with the right script/director.