Wednesday, July 17, 2024

‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ is a Slick Action Throwback

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Those Who Wish Me Dead is a throwback to the type of movies Hollywood used to make on the regular back in the late 90s. Though it’s slicker and more polished than maybe the film calls for, it’s nevertheless an enjoyable time at the movies. Or, it could just be I’m an easy mark for any film with Angelina Jolie and Jon Bernthal.

Taylor Sheridan is a hit or miss director. He has made his name primarily by telling stories by appropriating the very cultures he purports to give voice. But here, he seems to have found his sweet spot between his progressive values and well-crafted genre fare.

The movie does a good job juggling at least three narratives without ever making it seem like a mess or hard to follow. We have smokejumper Hannah (Jolie), a woman haunted by an incident where she misjudged the wind and killed some people. Her ex-boyfriend is Sheriff Ethan (Bernthal), who understands more than anyone that Hannah’s wild antics and drunken binges are her failure to cope with her past trauma.

Soon they will cross paths with a couple of killers, Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) and Jack (Aidan Gillen). They are tracking down Owen (Jack Weber), a forensic accountant who’s uncovered a vast conspiracy and needs to be silenced. Owen and his son Connor (Finn Little) go on the run to Owen’s brother-in-law Ethan, and the wheels of the plot go round and round.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is helped by its mixture of movie stars and character actors. Jolie does her thing and is convincing as a smokejumper who can’t outrun her mistakes only to find redemption in a child on the run from hitmen. Meanwhile, Bernthal, a Charles Bronson replacement if ever there was one, plays his part as the gruff Sheriff with a sweet side so effortlessly it should be illegal.

But, truthfully, as fun as the movie was, it was the little things that made me enjoy it more. Tyler Perry pops up as the manager of the agency in charge of the hitmen. He has one scene, and it’s a reminder of how good Perry is as an actor and how charming he can be. Perry’s role plays into a minor subplot of the movie in which Patrick and Jack openly complain about cost cuts and understaffing of missions.

Moments like these are the type of scenes that tickle me. They do nothing for the plot but also give the actors little bits to play around with. Hoult and Gillen are delightful as two mildly disgruntled assassins. Gillen, as the managerial type, with Hoult as the younger but competent sidekick, makes for excellent foils for Jolie and Little.

The script by Sheridan, Michael Koryta, and Charles Leavitt does a nice job of setting characters up without padding the movie with needless scenes. Those Who Wish Me Dead is a nicely constructed action vehicle that’s so good that you almost don’t notice or care how much plot contrivance has to happen. Lightning striking the fire tower or the hitmen causing a forest fire so no one will notice the body count. Then there’s my favorite, the field of random lightning bolts, which is a real thing but also wholly unnecessary and only included because the film needed an action beat.

But who cares. It was fun and led to Connor getting to utter the line, “Getting struck by lightning made you weird.”

Sheridan also allows for little surprises, such as Ethan’s pregnant wife, Allison (Medina Senghore). She proves to be more than a match for the two hitmen. Even better, she ends up being one of the heroines of the movie. 

Sheridan wisely uses Ben Richardson, who was his cinematographer for his last movie Wind River. Richardson shoots the fire in Those Who wish Me Dead with a sort of horrified awe. The fire is never framed as having a personality or intelligence. Still, Richardson frames the flames and even Hannah’s relationship to them almost like a mystical element, something to be feared but also respected.

Jolie is one of the few remaining true movie stars. A woman whose name is reason enough to see the movie and whose presence is almost always reliable. She has the charisma and a relationship with the camera that allows us to relate and gaze upon in awe. 

That Jolie is good in the movie is hardly newsworthy. Yet, I liked the chemistry between her and Little. There’s a tenderness mixed with confusion as Hannah isn’t fond of kids and also feels guilty about her actions resulting in the death of at least two. But the two have excellent chemistry together as Little’s Connor is desperately searching for a parental figure. 

But Bernthal and Senghore almost steal the show. Granted, Bernthal could have chemistry with a rock. But Senghore gives us a woman who we can see Ethan falling for and marrying.

Sheridan balances the tones of the movie just right. Those Who Wish Me Dead could have come off as too corny had it leaned into humor just a little too much or been insufferable had it taken itself too seriously. Thankfully, it results in a good time.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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