In his Oscar-nominated script for Hell or High Water (2016), Taylor Sheridan showed a promising ability to meld a smart action-thriller and a message movie. The picture was a tale of bank robbers given no choice but to take matters into their own hands because of the 2008 banking crisis. (Hey, who’s the real thief?) It was a corny idea, but stylishly developed, and the movie’s dialogue was notably punchy.
Now a writer-director, Sheridan has taken a huge step backward into the realm of B-movie hackery. His new one, a theatrical and HBO Max release, is called Those Who Wish Me Dead, a trying-too-hard-to-be-exciting title that presages the stupidity to follow. You go with a title like that when your ambition is to capture the attention of someone rummaging through the bin of generic $5 DVDs at Walmart.
Based on a novel by Michael Koryta and adapted for the screen by him, Charles Leavitt, and Sheridan, the movie strives for Jerry Bruckheimer’s air of macho one-upmanship, but offers none of the slickness that Bruckheimer always brings to the party. Anyone who thinks a Bruckheimer blockbuster is easy to pull off should consult this movie for unassailable proof to the contrary.
Angelina Jolie plays Hannah, a tough-but-tender Montana smoke jumper with a tragic past. Are there a lot of 45-year-old women who parachute into the middle of fires? Shrug. Jolie has raided tombs; I guess she can take the heat. Hannah is a whiskey-swilling, tough-talking hellcat of a guys’ girl surrounded by swaggering, brawny dudes who wish they were half as tough as she is. But they’re also secretly protective of her feelings about her guilty secret, which turns out to be as generic and thinly developed as every other idea in this movie.
In faraway Florida, two stone-cold hired killers (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) who are also expert trackers, masters of disguise, and brilliant computer hackers are on the trail of a clever “forensic accountant” (Jake Weber) whose tech proves to be so hackable I suspect his password is “password.” After a D.A. gets murdered, Owen the accountant correctly suspects that he’s next on the kill list, so he takes his little boy Connor (Finn Little) and flees in their car, unable to go to the police because of some all-pervasive political corruption that the script never bothers to explain. Their boss is played by Tyler Perry, in a one-scene cameo that is completely superfluous to the action and as such is more or less inexplicable, unless you assume Perry is a pal of somebody involved in the production and said, “I’ve got some free time. Can you write a part for me?”
Based on nothing but a wild guess, the killers instantly figure out that the accountant and his son have driven to Montana to meet up with a relative, a wily sheriff (Jon Bernthal) who runs a survivalist camp with his equally resourceful wife (Medina Senghore), who is heavily pregnant. (Best unintentionally funny line in the movie: One of the killers asks, “You pregnant?” Er, no, she just enjoys wearing a basketball under her T-shirt.) When the accountant’s son has to hightail it through the woods with the killers on his trail, he runs into Hannah, who by sheer coincidence also happens to be the sheriff’s ex-girlfriend.
To cover up for a total lack of interesting plot or characters, Sheridan lashes together tough-guy dialogue, bloody shootouts, hair-raising escapes, and, when all else fails, massive blazes. In order to divert attention from their actions, the killers casually start a gigantic forest fire. Sheridan evidently hopes to create a diversion of his own, distracting the audience from the junk pile of clichés on offer with lots of footage of forests burning and what the stuntmen call “fire gags,” the kind of cheap spectacle that was already stale by the middle of the Reagan administration. Midway through the movie, when the emotionally scarred kid reveals to his emotionally scarred protector that his mother died of cancer, which frames her as his replacement mom, the script is practically shouting, “We’re desperate to make you feel something, and this is the best we could do.” What I felt without interruption was boredom.
Hannah, discovering her nurturing side, coaches the boy in survival tactics and helpfully offers tips on how to evade forest fires by ducking under water — a fine strategy, assuming you can hold your breath until the blaze burns itself out. Pursuing them through the flames, the hit men who were so hyper-competent at the outset of the movie become increasingly error-prone for no particular reason, except that having smart guys turn stupid is the easiest way to wrap things up. As he has proven on everything from The Wire to Game of Thrones, Gillen makes for an exceptionally contemptible baddie. But I’d lost all respect for his wickedness by the end of this movie. Really, villains, when you’re about to dispatch someone but manage to get distracted and conked on the head because someone behind you says, “Hey!” you ought to be forced to attend a remedial course in villainy.