A simple but smoldering throwback to the days when all you needed to make a decent action film was a big star, a striking location, and a few cold henchman carrying those fancy machine guns with the red laser sights, Taylor Sheridan’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is nothing short of the most rock-solid blockbuster of the 1994 summer movie season. In 2021, it can’t help but feel like an unintended anachronism; as if Sheridan aimed for something that matched the gravitas he wrote into “Sicario” or the dark portent he blew into “Wind River,” fell very far short, and landed in a pillowy bed of old popcorn instead. That may not be high praise, but it sure as hell isn’t a complaint either.
Adapted from Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel of the same name, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” starts the way that every movie should: With “Salt” mode Angelina Jolie smoke-jumping into the cauldron of a Montana wildfire. But in a story that could go in any number of directions from such an auspicious beginning, it’s what happens next that cements Sheridan’s film as the vintage stuff of braindead weekend viewing par excellence.
In a seemingly unrelated scene, two ominous types played by Aidan Gillen (of course) and Nicholas Hoult (why not!) pose as harmless electric inspectors in order to talk their way into a Florida district attorney’s home. As they casually walk down the street a few minutes later, a splotch of fresh blood on their clothes, the shot is framed so that you just know the house is going to explode in the background. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt. This is cinematic muscle memory at its finest; it’s your body remembering scenes from “Commando” and “Cliffhanger” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” that your brain long forgot. And then BOOM. The bad guys don’t even flinch. The rest of the film is just gravy after that.
The logic that knots these plots together is inane in a way that almost beggars description, but suffice it to say that a forensic accountant realizes that he’s next on the killers’ hit list and — without irony — hightails it to the survival school near the wooded mountains where Jolie’s character works. Her name is Hannah Faber, and she’s been a wee bit self-destructive since failing to save a few teen boys from a recent blaze. Lucky for Hannah, she’ll get a shot at redemption when the accountant’s young son Connor (effective newcomer Finn Little) survives the ambush the bad guys set for his father and escapes into the trees with all of his dad’s most valuable secrets. A combustible game of cat and mouse ensues, a massive fire nipping at everyone’s heels all the while.
Everything that happens in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is just tinder for the inferno that’s building in the background, and nobody bothers to pretend otherwise. Not only is there no there there to this story, there’s really not much of a here there, either. In that light, it’s all the more impressive that Jolie is still excellent as an unmoored badass who’s in desperate need of someone to save — someone to lure her down from the fire tower where she’s holed up for the season — and she does a lot of strong chin acting so that Hannah can effectively stick her neck out for Connor.
But if the scenes between them are sharp and burnished with maternal energy, they pale in comparison to the protective energy that galvanizes the subplot about sweet alpha male sheriff Ethan Sawyer (Jon Bernthal) and his pregnant wife Allison (MVP Medina Senghore). These poor unfortunate souls have the bad luck of being in the killers’ paths every step of the way, which leads to some heart-in-your-throat action scenes that only a fetus in the belly can buy; the rather unknown Senghore is a major find, and watching her turn the tables on Gillen and Hoult is the kind of unfussy spectacle that can bring a multiplex audience to its feet.
All of the setpieces burn with that same degree of no-nonsense nonsense, even when some dodgy CGI elements threaten to peel away the reality of Sheridan’s natural vision. For the most part, however, the director is right at home in this “Yellowstone” terrain. His camera drinks up the big skies and flax-colored fields before they both get swallowed by the flames, and he seems comfortable with nature doing most of the heavy lifting here.
The action is clear and rooted in human stakes, even during a climactic standoff that’s almost completely obfuscated by smoke. That’s a fair tradeoff for the few moments where Sheridan gives in to the rugged poetry he relies on to manufacture an artificial sense of importance. Case in point: it’s suggested that Connor has some kind of special psychic bond with animals and insects, but that doesn’t carry much weight in a movie so hazily sketched out that some viewers might not even realize the hitmen are father and son.
Meanwhile, all viewers will be left scratching their heads over Tyler Perry’s one-scene cameo as the killers’ boss. In fairness, the mogul casts an effectively long shadow, and does just enough to hint at the deeper backstory that “Those Who Wish Me Dead” has mercifully little interest in digging into or teasing out in a sequel. If anything, this movie’s rustic, survivalist, “coastal elites can keep their fancy shared universes” approach to action cinema feels like Sheridan’s mea culpa for his involvement in Amazon’s recent Tom Clancy adaptation “Without Remorse,” which ruthlessly terraformed Rainbow Six into a wannabe Avengers.
“Those Who Wish Me Dead” might be missing the extra gear required to make it as much of a touchstone for contemporary audiences as the likes of “Executive Decision” or “The River Wild” are for anyone who was saw them in the ‘90s, but watching this kind of film claw its way onto screens at a time when it seems so outmoded is enough to make you happy that it hasn’t been completely killed off yet.
Warner Bros. will release “Those Who Wish Me Dead” in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, May 14.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.
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