Jolie Breathes Life into ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’

She’s the best thing about this grim survival flick

By Todd Hill

Angelina Jolie and Finn Little are on the run from mysterious assassins and a raging forest fire in “Those Who Wish Me Dead.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

(2.5 stars out of 5)

There’s a big, looming question at the center of the new Angelina Jolie movie “Those Who Wish Me Dead.”

It’s all to do with the title of the film. A boy is on the run from a pair of assassins after they less-than-neatly dispatch his father, a forensic accountant. Just as I’m not at all clear what a forensic accountant does, if there even is such a thing, the film appears to cleverly draw out just who these assassins are and why they want to finish off this boy (along with anyone else who happens to get in their way).

At least I assumed “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” directed by Taylor Sheridan (2016’s “Hell or High Water”) was being clever. Instead, none of these questions are ever answered. Should they have been? Did these omissions prevent me from enjoying the film? Well, they knocked a half star off this review, and they bothered me enough that I led off this review with them.

At one point, one of the assassins (Aidan Gillen, who I still know best for his portrayal of a fictional mayor of Baltimore, Md., in the 2004–08 HBO series “The Wire”) meets with his boss, played by Taylor Perry, one of the film’s producers, who then drives off in a U.S. government vehicle. I’ve read that Perry’s character is a mob boss, although if that is ever alluded to in the movie I missed it.

Last I checked, the mob didn’t work for the feds. Nor does the U.S. government indiscriminately kill its own citizens for no good reason, at least not routinely, but — well, I’ve devoted enough words to this matter already. I only bring up the oversight because it’s sloppy, and sloppiness in one aspect of a screenplay tends to pop up again in another, as it does here.

Otherwise, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” works well enough, I suppose. By no means is it a must-see on any level, although it does feature yet another interesting performance by its star, Angelina Jolie.

The film has been described as a neo-western, as was Sheridan’s “Hell or High Water,” which — perhaps generously — received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. I don’t know that I like that term, at least in regards to “Those Who Wish Me Dead.” Yes, it takes place somewhere in the American West. And there are good guys and bad guys (even if we don’t know why they’re bad).

Most importantly, at the center of the movie is a raging forest fire, a timely nod to the recurrent natural disasters now bedeviling the increasingly arid West in this era of climate change. Jolie’s character is even labeled a “fire jumper.”

I didn’t buy this for one minute, and fortunately, the movie doesn’t really make me try. Make no mistake, Jolie has always been a strong actress with a wide range, but I just couldn’t see her swilling beers with the guys from the back of a pickup truck, no matter how many tattoos she has. In short order, however, Jolie’s character, after being shuttled off alone to a fire tower, finds herself being a tough mother of sorts to the kid (Finn Little) who’s being pursued by assassins. She’s a natural at this.

The movie also features a minor subplot that’s not all that interesting involving a local sheriff (Jon Bernthal) and his pregnant wife (Medina Senghore), whose association with a survivalist school appears to have something to do with our dearly departed forensic accountant, although that apparent link is never explained.

No matter, since by this time “Those Who Wish Me Dead” has fully become an action tale of survival, and the film operates just fine on this level. As anyone who has happened upon one of those harrowing video escapes from a wildfire on YouTube, out-of-control flagrations can make for good viewing. Never mind that virtually all the fire scenes here (as well as many more) look like they were created in a computer.

Jolie’s peak years as a movie star are well behind her, which is why I was surprised to see her headlining a major motion picture again (OK, so maybe this flick isn’t that major). She still retains the ability to come across as the most interesting aspect of any film she’s in, just as she stole “Girl, Interrupted” away from star Winona Ryder way back in 1999. But if “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is any indication, it’s possible — perhaps even inevitable — that Jolie’s future film projects won’t be all that interesting.

1 hour and 40 minutes. Rated R for strong violence, and language throughout. Debuted May 14, 2021 on HBO Max.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sV6VNNjBkcE

Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat. For his longer articles on all the Academy Award Best Picture nominees, visit Oscar Bait, or https://medium.com/oscar-bait.

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Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.