Good artists borrow; great artists steal.Pablo Picasso, maybe.
In Those Who Wish Me Dead, writer-director Taylor Sheridan nicks so many ingredients from so many movies that it’s kinda tricky to keep track of ’em all. Gather ’round, gang–let me see if I can suss out the recipe: We’ll start with the protagonist, who should be a haunted mountain hero with a smidge of a death wish, a la Cliffhanger. (Although, this film swaps John Lithgow’s creaky British accent for Aiden Gillen’s creaky American accent.) Throw in a little pyro-porno from Backdraft. Add a dash of Kurt Russell’s flummoxed soccer dad from Breakdown. Finally, chuck in a generous helping of scenery from, uh…A River Runs Through It? Hell, I don’t know. Anyway, put all that in a blender and puree until it’s nice and goopy.
All that may sound like a knock, but Dead actually ain’t half-bad. It won’t reinvent the art of cinema, but neither did any of the movies I just named. Angelina Jolie plays Hannah, a badass smokejumper consumed with guilt over three victims she couldn’t save. Hannah’s PTSD gets her demoted to watchtower duty, where she sits and frets in terrible silence. Her ex, Ethan (Jon Bernthal), is a studly sheriff who worries that Hannah might be on the emotional road to nowhere.
At this point, the film cuts to Florida, where Owen (Jake Weber, falling somewhere between Discount Beau Bridges and Discount John Ritter) is an auditor in a bit of a pickle. It seems that Owen caught some bad guys trying to pull off some nefarious shenanigans, and they’ve dispatched a pair of ruthless, highly-skilled hitmen (Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) to shut him up. When Owen gets wise, he scoops up his preteen son, Connor, (Finn Little) and makes like a tree. The killers learn that Ethan is Owen’s brother-in-law, and they figure he must headed to mountain country for help. If you’ve seen enough movies, you can probably stitch together what happens all by your onesie.
On the plus side, Those Who Wish Me Dead never stops moving. That’s good, because it keeps you from noticing stuff like Sheridan’s soapy dialogue, or how Jolie’s shoddy, CGI watchtower looks like it was rendered on a poor man’s Middle Earth. And even if you did notice, chances are you won’t care: This is visceral, propulsive entertainment, and most of its shambling, B-movie charm requires living in the moment. The more you can put the analytical parts of your brain on idle, the more likely you are to have a good time with all this unhinged goofiness.
Dead-Wish also benefits from a troop of actors who should be above its pay grade: Jolie is good enough to make such a thinly-drawn role look easy. She provides real warmth to the movie’s emotional core and builds a genuine chemistry with Little. Their scenes are surprisingly poignant, thus giving this loony little thriller a touch of dramatic heft. Attention also must be paid to Gillen and Hoult, who bring a sharp edge of icy intelligence to their well-heeled assassins.
Nothing about Those Who Wish Me Dead will feel brand new. You’ll spot at least a dozen influences as it moves a long. Whether this constitutes theft or homage is a whole other kettle of fish. The important thing is Dead works well as junk food cinema. You’ll root for the heroes, hiss the villains, and forget the whole thing when it’s over. And that might be the highest praise a movie like this could ever earn.
100 min. R. HBOMax.