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Those Who Wish Me Dead
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Secondhand Smoke"
2 stars

If I had been forced to guess the type of project that Angelina Jolie would select for her first (not counting her turn in her directorial effort “By the Sea”) outing before the cameras in a non-family film enterprise in more than a decade, I am not certain exactly how I would have answered. That said, I am pretty sure that I would not have tagged her to sign on for a project that looks like the kind of thing that Howie Long might have turned down during his brief attempt at big screen stardom. And yet, that is exactly what she has chosen to do with the portentously-titled “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” a slab of unrelenting mediocrity that appears to have been taken from a recently unearthed pile of rejected action screenplays from the mid-90s and brought to something that never quite manages to approximate life.

She plays Hannah, a seemingly tough-as-nails forest firefighter in Montana who is working in isolation while struggling with the trauma brought on by her last fire, in which mistakes were made that led to the result of some of her fellow firefighters. Meanwhile, down in Florida, a forensic accountant (Jake Webber) hears the news that the district attorney he has been working with on a top case has just been blown up and, fearing the worst, hits the road with his young son Connor (Finn Little) to Montana, where they plan to hide out with Ethan (Jon Bernthal), a local sheriff who, it just so happens, used to date Hannah before settling down and marrying Allison (Medina Senghore), who is about to have their child. Alas, the hitmen responsible for the DA’s murder (Aiden Glenn and Nicholas Hoult) are so super smart that they immediately figure out exactly where they are heading and manage to figure out the exact lonely road to ambush them from as they drive through.

Well, they aren’t that brilliant, I suppose, because while they do manage to gun down both the accountant and a passerby, the kid manages to escape and since he is carrying top secret information that would be very bad for some very powerful people if it were to get out, they set off in pursuit of him. In order to provide a distraction while they go on the hunt, the two start a massive forest fire because there is no possible way that decision could ever go sideways for them. While they blunder about, Connor runs across Hannah in the forest and she promises to take care of him and get him to safety and television reporters who can broadcast the information he has. That proves to be harder than anticipated and soon she finds herself charged with trying to save the kid from both the killers and the fire, both of which are quickly approaching, while at the same time trying to confront and exorcise her own demons at last.

The basic elements on display in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” are pretty familiar, of course, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot still make for potent drama in the right hands. In this case, however, the screenwriters have thrown a lot of stuff into the mix—Hannah trying to lead the kid to safety, the deadly hitmen, the forest fire, the couple whose future family is threatened, Hannah’s past traumas and the grand conspiracy that has brought them all together—but never figures out how to make decent use of any of them. The hitmen are supposed to be models of cooly ruthless efficiency but the demands of the plotting require them to act like idiots at every turn. the subplot about the sheriff and his pregnant wife adds little other than an ugly sequence in which the pregnant woman (who also happens to be African-American) is threatened with a red-hot fireplace poker by the killers after getting smacked around. The forest fire seems to exist in a vacuum and never comes across as a real threat until the very end until the very end. (We never get a sense that anyone is fighting it even after it has been raging for hours.) As for the big conspiracy that the entire story essentially revolves around, the film is so disinterested in it as anything other than a plot trigger that we never get any idea of what it could be and why so many people need to die to keep it hidden. This aspect does lead to the single oddest thing about the movie—a bizarre one-scene cameo from Tyler Perry as the apparently powerful man who hired the killers and who explains things without actually saying anything. (Like the rest of the film, the scene is nonsense but it does serve as a reminder that Perry can indeed be a strong presence as an actor as long as he is not doing the directing as well.)

The only stuff in the movie that really works is the stuff involving Hannah and her pre-teen charge. I would not say that Angelina Jolie makes for an especially convincing representation of a outwardly bold/inwardly traumatized reclusive Montana smoke jumper, though that is hardly the biggest problem considering the film’s generally tenuous connection towards reality. That said, she remains a captivating screen presence, even in junk like this, and there are indicators here and there that suggest that she is fully cognizant of just how ridiculous the whole thing is. More importantly, she and Little form a genuine connection in their scenes together that I liked and wished that I could have seen more of instead of the other nonsense jostling for screen time.

Those moments do work but there are just not enough of them to make “Those Who Wish Me Dead” worth watching. Ultimately, it is little more than an exhausted trip through tired cliches that never catches fire—no pun intended—either as a serious drama of attempted redemption under trying circumstances or as an over-the-top action extravaganza. It is just blah more than anything else and not even the live-wire inclusion of Angelina Jolie can do much to juice things up. However, if the film does inspire Jolie to start appearing in movies not aimed at the kiddie crowd on a more regular basis than she has in the last decade or so, then I suppose it will have served some purpose after all.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34077&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/13/21 20:39:51
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USA
  14-May-2021 (R)

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