By: Anthony Francis
Taylor Sheridan is one hell of a screenwriter and director. He is an artist who respects the aura of the old styled Western-tinged films and you can see the influence of masters such as Sam Peckinpah, John Ford, John Huston, and even Larry McMurtry is his works.
Sheridan’s screenplays for the two “Sicario” films and especially “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River” (which he also directed) were mature, character-driven works that prove the filmmaker has a deep respect for filmmaking through a sense of character and place.
His Paramount Network show, “Yellowstone” is a sprawling modern Western about grit, generations, and family that pays respect to Native American history through realistic discussions on who deserves any land in this nation. It is a masterful work and one of the finest television shows I have ever seen.
Recently, Sheridan has taken a break from the types of films he writes so well. Last month’s “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” was a so-so entry into the Clancy cinematic universe. Co-written by Taylor Sheridan, it all felt rather bland and flat.
Now comes his current release which Sheridan co-wrote and fully directed, the Angelina Jolie Action-Thriller “Those Who Wish Me Dead”, a dreadfully undercooked bore that offers many promises and makes good on not a one.
The screenplay borrows heavily from 1993’s great Sylvester Stallone Action extravaganza “Cliffhanger”.
In that film, Sly was a retired climber haunted by a horrible event where he was unable to prevent a tragic and horrific death. He is eventually forced to elude (and stay one step ahead of) bad guys and use his skills to navigate the mountains before the villains kill him and those close to him.
In this new Sheridan piece, Angelina Jolie is a fire jumper who is haunted by a horrible event where she was unable to prevent a tragic and horrific death. She is eventually forced to elude (and stay one step ahead of) bad guys and use her skills to navigate the forest before the villains kill her and those close to her.
The difference here is that the baddies are two assassins who are out to kill a young boy who has information that could bring down their boss (an out of place Tyler Perry who has only one scene, doing nothing interesting with it.) and his criminal organization.
Jolie stumbles across the kid in the wilderness after he has gone on the run once the two hit men kill his father. There can be no loose ends, so they stop at nothing to come after the boy.
That’s all there is. Absolutely nothing interesting is to be found beyond the surface plot.
Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt, and Sheridan’s screenplay sets up some interesting characters and fails to let us get to know them, making our involvement in anyone’s fates almost null and void.
The two assassins are played by Aidan Gillen and Nicolas Hoult, two exceptionally fine actors. In this film, the two are given nothing dialogue and (for professional killers) make some lunkheaded decisions on how to capture the boy. They do everything out in the open for the world to see. The change their clothes for each new disguise but never do they alter their faces. And once the inevitable final confrontation occurs, their actions are absolutely ridiculousand make us question whether these men have ever done this kind of work before.
Jon Berthanal is a local sheriff and an ex-boyfriend of Jolie, a plot point that is never explored beyond its mention. Medina Singhore is his six-months pregnant wife. The two are in deep love and are far removed from the craziness of forest fires and of Jolie’s character’s reckless ways. Jolie takes to parachuting out of the back of pickup trucks for reasons that are never explained beyond the script saying, “Look at what a daredevil she is!”.
Action film history dictates that the sheriff and his pregnant wife will be in danger. It does come and their plight holds the film’s only moments of true excitement and gender-hero roles are flipped when Singhore becomes a force to be reckoned with.
Finn Little does particularly good work as the young boy. His scenes with Jolie, while rushed, do show heart, and make his character even more real amongst the cliches. Jake Webber does equally solid work as the boy’s father. The screenplay tricks us by making the two so interesting and well-developed in the beginning that it is even moredisappointing when the film quickly discards any important character building once the father is dead.
Angelina Jolie is an actress who is always interesting to watch. She has deep acting talents that allow her to be versatile from film to film, even when doing her many works in the Action genre.
Jolie is fine here but does not have enough to work with. The screenplay renders her character one-note and by mid-film we are only rooting for her because the boy is in danger. Beyond a couple of moments, Jolie’s character doesn’t have much to do, as her role becomes a lot of “go that way!”, “Listen to me!”, and “Hide!”. This is doubly disappointing by the fact that this is the actress’s first major original release in a few years.
The disappointments in this film are many. That Taylor Sheridan had a hand in the writing and chose to direct is a crushing blow to his talents. There is a lot going on in this film yet there is nothing there.
The action sequences are handled well enough but have no bite, save for a couple of good moments when the sheriff’s wife makes her stand and rides into the forest with her hunting rifle to help save the day.
The forest fire moments are okay but, as with the film entire, nothing interesting is done with them. As the fire roars towards both heroes and villains, the most exciting thing the characters do is turn around and go the other way. There were many missed opportunities where the fire itself could have been used to give the audience some palpable edge-of-your-seat thrills a ’la “Backdraft” but it is instead a mere something for the CGI crew to do.
The film certainly looks good. Sheridan loves to shoot open country and Ben Richardson’s camera captures the landscapes beautifully. Richardson’s cinematography is one of the few memorable things about the film.
Taylor Sheridan’s frontier morals fail to gel with the sensibilities of the modern Hollywood Action film. The director tries to sneak them in but never finds the proper balance. Along with the listless screenplay, this is what bogs the film down.
With a good cast wasted, an undercooked screenplay, and the promise of exciting action that comes with only a whimper, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a major disappointment from one of our most original writer/directors. Better luck next time.