ST. LOUIS — Much like its star, Angeline Jolie, "Those Who Wish Me Dead" is a lean slice of spring entertainment. Built for a theater but playing just as tautly from the couch, Taylor Sheridan's new film is 97 minutes stuffed with thrilling suspense, well-staged action sequence, and a cast that completely buys into the premise and genre entrapment.
No, this movie won't win best screenplay at the Oscars next year – but man it packs a punch. This is the kind of movie that doesn't wait for GO, launching immediately into the plot and keeping the pace frantic for its entirety. The fact that it holds our attention so intently is due to the acting.
Again, not a contender for awards but still a good swing in a crowded genre. The genre in this case is action thriller, or action adventure. A movie that doesn't have to sit in the ivory tower because that was never the intention. "Those Who Wish Me Dead," adapted from a novel, aims to please and not waste your time.
Jolie is Hannah, a gifted yet jaded smoke jumper in the Montana forest who tragically failed to save three young boys once on the job. It's that painful hex that has put a vice grip on her personal life, which includes the ex-boyfriend-turned-deputy (the talented and versatile Jon Bernthal) and current job assignment, aka isolation, atop the trees in a watch tower. Or as Hannah calls it, "a 20 by 20 box up in the air that doesn't have a toilet."
When a runaway kid (Finn Little) comes across her, a redemption song starts to play for our heroine. Running from a pair of professional killers (Nicholas Hoult and Little Finger himself, Aidan Gillen) with enough trauma for an entire life's work, young Connor could use some saving, in more ways than one. Hannah and Connor find common ground in the most unlikely of circumstances. Oh, and there's LOTS of fire. Tons of Montana (really New Mexico) beautiful scenery.
That's all I'll tell you about the plot, so let's talk about the quality. Is it good and more importantly, is it worth your time?
Yes. Big time. Sheridan-who hit home runs with the "Sicario" and "Hell or High Water" scripts as well as "Wind River" overall-is in his zone here. His preferred blend of make believe is violence and the human mind's quarrel with it. Few know this terrain, pretty much anywhere with woods and lodges with horses running around, better than him. Like Peter Berg but with less caffeine, his films and stories resonate quickly and consistently.
I really linked up to these characters. The cast, which includes Sheridan favorites like James Jordan and Boots Southerland, is game for the 90's-style action smashed burger delight served up here. One could say they are all capable of more complex material, but you couldn't say they were slumming here.
Jolie is a woman of action like no other. Only Charlize Theron and a young Sigourney Weaver can match her ferocity and relative ease with action choreography, and she hasn't lost a step at 46 years of age. It's the little things she does that count big here.
This is her first real star vehicle since 2010's "Salt," if you take away the Disney and animated work. This film lives or dies on her ability to keep your attention hooked, and Sheridan's film succeeds. According to IMDB, he only agreed to direct the script he reworked if he could get "Angie." He did, and the movies are better for this movie that was supposed to come out last year.
Out of the rest of the cast, a few stand out. Gillen just plays a great nasty bad guy who does have some compassion. Bernthal, also a Sheridan favorite, is just an assured presence in any movie. Jake Weber is solid here in a pivotal role. Medina Senghore, known mostly for her television work, isn't a name to forget. Playing the deputy's pregnant yet able wife, she has a few big moments late in the film that flip the table, so to speak.
Little, making his first big screen dent here, is impressive here. He's not just the young kid in distress, adding some emotional nuance to his character that often goes missing in movies like this.
Confession: I watched this film twice inside 16 hours. It plays that smooth and easily on the brain during a rainy Saturday. For as much action as it delivers, the film can slow down with precision. Every adventure film needs slow-down moments, and "Those Who Wish Me Dead" has quite a few decent character-building scenes.
Some of it is a little too much on the nose in the end, and there's contrivance if you look closer, but this HBO Max release knows how to craft a thrill.
Another extra-base hit for Taylor Sheridan and proof that Jolie can still deliver as a star.