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It's one of those arcane Hollywood mysteries that we have not, for the last couple of decades, been regularly regaled with a new installment of some explodey escapist franchise that's built around Angelina Jolie's unparalleled ability to run and smolder simultaneously. Her stint as Lara Croft sputtered out after only two movies; the "Mission: Impossible" series, which is built around Tom Cruise's somewhat similar facility for running while looking determined, is at six and counting.
Perhaps it's partly Jolie's own preference — no long-term entanglements to stop her pursuing other avenues. But the fact remains, she is a great action movie star who has never been in a great action movie.
Taylor Sheridan's "Those Who Wish Me Dead" in which Jolie plays a whisky-swiggin', trash-talkin', trauma-suppressin' smoke jumper who is parachuting into a raging Montana wildfire as the movie opens, is not going to change that. But not because it's no good; rather, because it's hardly an action movie at all, despite its high-octane kickstart and an early, misfit-crew-facing-natural-disasters vibe that's straight out of "Twister" or "Armageddon."
Instead, it's one of the genre hybrids for which Sheridan has carved out a small, mid-budget, '90s-throwback niche: part eco-thriller, part western, part noir and part soulful, twangy drama. Once again, as in the screenplays for "Sicario," "Hell and High Water" and (his directorial debut) "Wind River," Sheridan's peculiar, refreshing talent lies in writing characters that adhere to the strictest archetypes culled from across the genre spectrum — the tortured tough guy/gal, the ornery sheriff, the ruthless hitman — and then animating them, like a screenwriting Dr. Frankenstein, with strangely human foibles, oddly human hearts.
Here Sheridan is co-writing with Charles Leavitt and Michael Koryta, the author of the book on which "Those Who Wish Me Dead" is based. But the off-kilter sensibility remains, and it gives the film, which is most straightforwardly a thriller, an air of thoughtfulness, and a slightly mournful edge that even the plot's silliest hairpins can't quite dull.
Hannah (Jolie) is a veteran wildfire-fighter with the Montana forest service, who is haunted by the memory of the kids she didn't save from that one blaze that time (I know how this sounds, but stick with it). She is tough and respected within her otherwise all-male crew, possibly because she's the type of woman who oozes a sort of machisma and who would never, given the choice, sit on a chair the right way round. But also possibly because she's Angelina Jolie — the actress is as committed as she's ever been but however grimy her face, it's still that face, and it's hard to see it as ordinary. Hannah has been put on lookout duty in a watchtower — seemingly a demotion of some sort — much to the amusement of her ex, Ethan (Jon Bernthal), a local sheriff's deputy whose wife, Allison (Medina Senghore), is heavily pregnant.
Meanwhile, all the way over in Florida, two hitmen, played in a fabulously weird double act (reminsicent of classic noir "Murder by Contract") by Aiden Gillen and Nicolas Hoult, are turning their murderous attention to Ethan's brother-in-law Owen (Jake Weber). He's a forensic accountant who has uncovered a maguffin's worth of incriminating evidence against Important People (represented by Tyler Perry in a brief cameo and a great suit), and who goes on the run with his young son Connor (an excellent, stoic Finn Little). Owen, hoping they'll be safe with Ethan, gets as far as the fringe of the forest before the hitmen catch up, and soon Connor is alone and traumatized in the woods with two psychos on his heels. Which is when Hannah finds him.
The relationship between Hannah and Connor is the ostensible heart of the film, but both actors, and Sheridan's keyed-down approach, mute the sentimentality. It's unusual and invigorating that while the pair does bond — perhaps sharing personal sob stories a touch more quickly than is wholly convincing — the bond is not the surrogate-mom/surrogate-son type we might expect.
Indeed Hannah, as portrayed by Jolie, has no maternal aura whatsoever; her relationship with the boy is protective but never patronizing; sometimes it's even tinged with irritation. "No wonder you're skinny," he says to her at one point. "I'm lean," she replies, her wry expression italicizing the word, and for a fleeting instant our sense of Jolie the movie star works with our sense of the character, not against it. Both, it seems, have been judged for being thin so often that the response is weary, ironic.
It's a nice little moment in a film far more impressive in its little moments than in its grander arcs. A trick of Sheridan's, aided by the rich, often picturesque but never obtrusive cinematography from DP Ben Richardson, is to hang on a scene for just one more beat than is strictly necessary for narrative purposes. Connor plays with a grasshopper, and the camera watches it as fascinatedly as he does: a sequence that does nothing except let the movie breathe briefly in sympathy with the boy. And when Gillen's hitman decides to set fire to the forest and tosses a flare onto its tinderbox-dry floor, there's an added reaction shot from him, as the flames shoot up: a little grunt of satisfaction that speaks volumes and almost accounts for this irrational act. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
But perhaps the most obliquely satisfying aspect of Sheridan's approach is how, when the heroism music stops playing, everyone gets a chance to grab a chair (Jolie obviously swinging hers around and under her). Hannah might be the protagonist, and the one given the most mission-standard redemption-seeking arc, and it being Jolie, she runs and smolders (sometimes literally, having been struck by lightning) with the best of them. But Ethan gets his moment, as does Connor's Dad, even the hitmen — whose intriguing dynamic could happily power some sort of existentialist spinoff movie of its own — have their own thing going on.
And when it comes to the most overtly heroic imagery — teetering on the ridiculous and involving a midnight horseback ride, a rifle and a hardboiled kiss-off line to an enemy — it belongs not to Hannah, but to Allison. But then, this is what you get with an action-drama-hitman-thriller-noir-western-disaster-movie-star-vehicle that isn't actually any of those things: "Those Who Wish Me Dead" — an enjoyable, absorbing, characterful testament to shuffling the whole deck of genre conventions, and then politely setting it on fire.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.