Thursday, June 1, 2023

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Survival Thriller Fails to Light a Fire Under Hollywood


Those Who Wish Me Dead is in theaters now and available for streaming on HBO Max.

Another shot-in-New-Mexico feature tries its luck in today's unstable movie theater market and on home streaming at the same time. The horror flick Army of the Dead was also shot in New Mexico (subbing for Nevada) and can currently be viewed in theaters and on Netflix. If you're looking for more, the action thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead (New Mexico subbing for Montana) is available at movie theaters and on HBO Max. Take your pre-post-pandemic pick. If you've got a subscription to the streaming service, though, it's advisable to just stay home. Trust me, this isn't the summer blockbuster that's gonna get audiences rushing back to cineplexes.

Angelina Jolie stars Hannah, a wild-as-hell, hard-as-nails smokejumper who finds herself cooling her heels in a boring Montana firewatch tower for the summer. Turns out she's suffering from some serious PTSD, getting drunk on the reg and having brief flashbacks to that time last year when she failed to save some kids during a raging wildfire. (Whatever screenwriting course they took, it's guaranteed no Hollywood screenwriter has ever skipped out on "backstory" day. Hollywood loves a tragic backstory and finds a way to shoehorn one in to every movie in creation.) Hannah's self-destructive ways are on full display in opening scenes. (She carries a flask in her back pocket and engages in one dumb parachute stunt.) This causes her to butt heads with tough-but-kindly small town sheriff's officer Deputy Ethan (Jon Bernthal)—who is relieved of romantic duty by dint of a pregnant wife.

Meanwhile, down in Florida—stick with me on this—single dad Owen (Jake Webber) is a "forensic accountant," and he's uncovered a nefarious secret that will bring down "governors and senators." The film never bothers to explain what that is, who it involves or how it will do that, exactly. The screenwriters would appreciate it if you would fill in that gap for them by imagining something believable and/or cool. A pair of well-dressed professional assassins (Aidan Gillan from "Game of Thrones" and former X-Man Nicholas Hoult) is dispatched to bump him off, and Owen is obliged to flee cross-country with shell-shocked tween son Connor (Finn Little) in tow. Turns out Owen's dead wife's brother's wife owns a wilderness survival school up in Montana. Also, the brother is Deputy Ethan. Yup, this is all stitching together nicely.

On the way to Montana, Owen and Connor are ambushed by the hitmen. Owen is killed and Connor finds himself running for his life through the forests of Montana. It isn't long, I'm sure you can guess, before Connor runs into Hannah and our various story threads finally unite into one rickety action flick.

In order to "distract" the locals from their hunt for young Connor, the hitmen decide to start a massive forest fire. (Not like that's gonna come back and bite them in the ass.) This affords Hannah some convenient Hollywood karma, allowing her to redeem herself by saving a young boy from the burning clutches of another forest fire. Also, it now forces the hitmen to search for Connor and his protector in the middle of a raging inferno. (Maybe you should have thought of that before you started the fire, geniuses.)

On the one hand, these hitmen are superhumanly skilled at their jobs. (They deduce, in all of 30 seconds, where Owen and Connor have fled by looking at the photographs on their walls and picking one at random.) On the other hand, they are blowsomely inept. (That whole forest fire thing, combined with the fact that they gun down seemingly half the people in Montana, leaving a trail of bullet-riddled bodies in their glaringly obvious wake.) At least it's fun to cheer for their inevitable deaths—not because they're so evil, but because they clearly need to be put out of their misery.

In addition to the gun-toting assassins and the wall of flames, it's important to note that Hannah and Connor are stuck in the middle of a wilderness survival thriller and must also combat nature itself in order to make it out alive. (Jolie's character is struck by lightning, not once, but twice.)

Actor ("Sons of Anarchy"), writer (Sicario) and occasional director (a bunch of episodes of "Yellowstone") Taylor Sheridan directs the film with workmanlike speed and efficiency. People run around a lot, bullets fly and there are plenty of CGI flames. A sense of humor might have helped spackle over the script's various holes. But it remains resolutely po-faced from start to finish. Jolie does her best with the few "character" elements she gets, looking only occasionally out of place in the sooty backwoods of Montana. Little (an Australian actor) acquits himself well and can summon the sniffles on command (something he's required to do often here). Bernthal is far more interesting in darker roles and should stop accepting colorless nice guy heroes.

As B-list action flicks go, Those Who Wish Me Dead is an OK timewaster. It fits in well enough with the mediocre product Hollywood seems willing to sacrifice to 2021's sluggish box office. But it ain't enough get audience off the couch and into movie theaters. At this point it's hard to imagine what would.


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