Angelina Jolie Dodges Forest Fires and Plot Clichés in ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’

Those Who Wish Me Dead” is the kind of action thriller where Oscar winners and other notable actors get to do something simpler for a change. Of course simpler means surviving massive forest fires and fleeing from assassins. For Angelina Jolie it marks a return to a kind of filmmaking she had put aside in favor of pursuing passion projects ranging from documentaries to heavy, introspective dramas. There’s little that is heavy or introspective in this by-the-book action movie, where what matters is if the bad guys will get their just desserts. Jolie never looks out of place and can still command such a movie, acting wholly believable even when the plot runs out of fuel.

Out in a great pine forest, smoke jumper Hannah (Jolie) is haunted by the memory of a brutal forest fire where fear paralyzed her and she watched an entire family die. Now she’s a lonesome, hard-living, hard-drinking firefighter with an edgy reputation. But out in Florida two corrupt cops, Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), are snuffing out officials connected to a corrupt conspiracy involving major power players. One of their targets, a man named Owen (Jake Weber), flees with his son Connor (Finn Little), towards the deep woods. Jack and Patrick give chase and eventually shoot Owen dead, but not before Connor escapes. Connor also happens to carry with him some incriminating evidence and so it’s critical that they capture the boy. Hannah finds him first and tries to get him to safety, but the two assassins in pursuit decide to set the forest ablaze to smoke the kid out. 

If the plot sounds fairly simple that’s because it is. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a throwback to early Jolie thrillers like “The Bone Collector,” which really depended much on her star power in those pre-superhero 2000s. Later of course Jolie would contribute to the emerging craze for franchises with the “Tomb Raider” movies. Maybe after so much activism and experiments in directing high-end fare, Jolie wanted to do something fun for a change. The same could be said for director Taylor Sheridan, who is best known for writing dark, intense semi-westerns like “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River.” He’s also the creator of the show “Yellowstone,” which is melodramatic, but still goes for social commentary. There’s little intellectual intensity or commentary on anything in “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” which is based on a novel by Michael Koryta. What is definitely a Sheridan touch is his love for wide open spaces, for those American vistas of grand forests and rivers. His penchant for western poetics still manages to peek through in panning shots over raging forest fires, even if the flames look a bit too CGI.

The plot is another matter. It’s a bare bones rehash of typical action movies from the ‘90s, like “Firestorm” or “Daylight,” where the hero takes on corrupt villains with a natural disaster as the backdrop. The characters are all mere action props, meant to keep us entertained as they run through the woods and dodge bullets between the trees. Jolie’s character is given a fun, testosterone-pumped introduction where smokejumpers look like outlaws. But the most we get for character development is her sitting atop a fire tower, keeping watch over the woods while looking pensive and flashing back to the family she let die. It turns out a local sheriff, Ethan (Jon Bernthal), is her ex and fears she’s chasing her own inner demons. But nothing else happens with that storyline because soon he’s taken hostage by Jack and Patrick. Even Ethan’s pregnant wife, Allison (Medina Senghore), gets pulled into the fray when the two killers invade her cabin and threaten her with a hot poker to get information on Connor. This leads to one of those scenes where you get a tip on how to use a can of flammable substance and a fireplace to make your own blowtorch. 

There are some pleasant scenes where Hannah and Connor get to bond and Jolie’s genuine, maternal sense of kindness comes through. But most of “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is all a chase through the woods. The posters and ads already give away that Jolie has to be entrapped by a massive forest fire, which ups the stakes when armed men are also chasing you around. Sheridan gets so worked up with these moments that few times does anyone pause to even remind us what the corruption case behind all this was even all about. And there’s Tyler Perry again making a comically brief cameo as Jack and Patrick’s enforcer, warning them that his business “deals with absolutes.” So quite a lot of talents are thrown in together to deliver schlocky dialogue, including Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult, who were both fantastic in their respective roles in “Game of Thrones” and “The Great.” Gillen eventually has to power through this one in macho action fashion, with a scarred face from nearly getting set on fire, overly large machine gun in hand. Yet if you want to see Angelina Jolie command a genre movie where she flees a forest fire, then “Those Who Wish Me Dead” may deliver moments of genuine entertainment. It’s not the worst movie of its kind, but story-wise there’s not much fire under the logs.

Those Who Wish Me Dead” releases May 14 on HBO Max and theaters nationwide.