(THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD premieres in limited theatres May 21st.)
Old fashioned fun
In the vein of CLIFFHANGER, DANTE’S PEAK, and a slew of man vs. nature films comes THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD, a rugged and impressive actioner that is a throwback in every sense of the word.
Directed with impressive gusto by Taylor Sheridan, who also co-writes, there’s a gritty simplicity that runs throughout the film, sometimes detrimentally, but mainly in a way that’s refreshing and exciting. There’s not a lot to say about it, but sometimes a plain “it’s great” is more than enough.
Angelina Jolie plays Hannah, a veteran firefighter who recently fell on hard times when a rescue went sour. With the deaths of children and fellow fighters on her mind, she (somewhat reticently) retreats to a firewatcher gig deep in the Dakota’s, hoping to avoid human contact for a while.
As expected, trouble arrives pretty quickly in Connor, a young boy on the run from hitmen who murdered his father. As the duo make their way back to civilization, their hunters set the dry forests ablaze, resulting in a wall of fire devouring everything in sight.
Due to its nature, the tropes in THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD are relatively routine, though Sheridan happily subverts some of them to great success. The plot doesn’t wow at any point, but it doesn’t need to, either. This is the kind of film they used to call a programmer back in the 90s — solid and unassuming, easily sold for basically anyone looking for a good time.
You could argue that such purity of vision is desirable in this age, where every film needs two prequels, a comic-book tie-in, and a commentary track to explain why things happen. There’s no fat on the body Sheridan’s film, and like its heroine, it fiercely refuses to get sidetracked. Instead, it steamrolls ahead, ignoring the bountiful contrivances and plotholes, pushing for total entertainment rather than nitty-gritty realism.
Yes, you could pick this one clean over the silly plot. For example, the duo of assassins, played by Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult, feel barely competent at best. Yet, they have a supernatural ability to arrive precisely when the plot requires them. Similarly, fire and nature themselves appear to move at the speed of drama. At times the characters can barely make their way across a meadow without taking hours, while others will sprint over the same terrain in a suit and tie without breaking a sweat.
It’s the kind of silliness that characterized 90s action cinema. SPEED is a ludicrous film when you think about it, but while it’s in full gear, you rarely don’t. THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD would be a trainwreck fit for the deepest trenches of VOD hell in lesser hands. But Sheridan and Jolie aren’t just any filmmakers. The former cut his teeth by writing and directing two of the best neo-westerns in recent memory. The latter easily segued from iconic parts to directing when everyone said she couldn’t.
Together, their work sings. Within five minutes on-screen, Jolie reminds us why she’s a worldwide star. Suddenly you wonder why she’s been gone this long and how she can stay a bit longer.
Supporting her, Sheridan regular Jon Bernthal gets to channel an all-American hero for a change, without nary a darker side in sight. Surprisingly, Bernthal is more than up to the task as he effortlessly charms his way through a simple part he makes his own. Likewise, Medina Senghore kicks ass as Allison, Bernthal’s wife and a survivalist training school head. She gets one of the stand-out setpieces of the film, which should result in riotous applause if there’s any justice.
Then there’s the other star of the show, the fire. Sheridan and crew built an impressive patch of forest in the middle of the desert to accommodate the tricky and demanding effects work, and the results are staggering. The film looks and sounds terrifying. Forest fires roar like demonic beasts from hell, and the naturalistic cinematography by Ben Richardson captures the details of the devastation with stunning clarity. One shot in particular of Jolie standing before the colossal fire is one for the ages.
Some elements are CGI-heavy, and there are moments you can clearly tell where it cuts corners. But, similarly to the plot, it’s hard to care when the big picture is this much fun.
THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD is wonderful for several reasons. Firstly, it’s effortless to recommend to anyone. Sure, it’s violent, and there are some particularly unnerving bits involved. But it’s also old-fashioned in a way where you can easily tell the villains from the heroes, and there’s always a certainty of knowing where this ends up.
Secondly, it’s the rare kind of studio picture where the director and lead actor are in charge. This is Jolie’s film, pioneered by a rare genre-auteur in Sheridan. That kind of combination rarely, if ever, works. Third, sometimes all you need is a straightforward, no-nonsense action thriller that ends the moment the action does. In this case, that’s not a slight either. It’s hard to make something look effortless, and THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD does so over and over again.