Two particular pairs face two greatest tests in the film adaptation of Michael Koryta’s book, also titled Those Who Wish Me Dead. Making up the first are Hannah (Angelina Jolie), a smokejumper, and Connor (Finn Little), a young’un hunted by suited assassins. She is still recovering from a grave miscalculation in the past, evidently through her sod-it attitude around the guys and stifled sobs in private, but to be able to protect the boy she must not let memories impede her. The question is, can she do it?
The second are Taylor Sheridan, the film’s director and co-writer (along with Koryta himself and Charles Leavitt), and the women characters. As Sicario and Wind River show, Sheridan’s track record of crafting compelling women is eyebrow-raising; in the end both Kate and Jane are not as integral as introduced in the stories they inhabit, or in settings where they function as the audience’s bridge. Here, Hannah is both the protagonist and the expert in the field (of survival) that were previously all men (Alejandro and Cory). She, on that note, is Sheridan’s biggest challenge. The question is, does he realise it?
One can even query, “Can you not ask the film to do so much and just buckle up?” Like the wildfire that helps differentiate the manhunt (or childhunt?) of Those Who Wish Me Dead from others, the film operates heatedly, expansively, rapidly and loudly, rendering expectations for it to dive deeper close to ridiculous. It might be awkward, considering Connor’s two pursuers, father and son Jack and Patrick (Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult), are the kind of people who will double-tap bunnies without hesitation and the matter of a boy fatefully becoming the target of a government-sanctioned assassination hunt, but all one could see within the frame is how entertaining everything is. How boisterous.
There is an abundance of persona and mortality from the title alone, and Sheridan seems to have lightened the emphasis on those aspects to triple-down his action-directing skills. With little respite from zippy bullets, fluid infernos and piercing lightning strikes — stunt coordinator Wade Allen, cinematographer Ben Richardson and editor Chad Galster give them all much knuckle-whitening flavour with high-impact choreography, fittingly blazing hues and careful sharp cuts; they all come together for a shootout between the hitmen and Allison (Medina Senghore), the expectant wife of Hannah’s sheriff friend Ethan (Jon Bernthal) — you do have a case here that Sheridan wants this to be his Speed, or Point Break, or The River Wild. The only problem is unlike those films there’s no one to care for here.
Those Who Wish Me Dead needs that aforementioned deeper dive, not to the point where it enters cinema’s hall of fame but just enough for the pursuit to matter. Sheridan can do this, as he had shown in his official directorial debut Wind River; like Denis Villeneuve for Sicario and David McKenzie for Hell or High Water he can employ the less to speak the more, that just with a gaze or a modest shootout vital revelations and information can surface. There is nothing of the sort here. It’s literally who’s the mouse, who’s the cat, cue a wildfire and off to the races. Hannah is then a footnote in a story that centers around her, and she only becomes visible when composer Brian Tyler works overtime to convey her sod-it mentality or her sadness with a combo of rock songs and pulsating beats or yearning strings. Connor, even with Little’s wise attunement, also fades in presence when he stops delivering a quippy one-liner or a retort that could befuddle her sailor-mouthed rescuer.
Oh, yes, Those Who Wish Me Dead is humourous, as intended. Splashes of water before the next fire? Action films of the ‘90s say “Hell yeah!”
Those Who Wish Me Dead is available in Theatres and on HBO Max from May 14, 2021