Wow. Those Who Wish Me Dead is a ride. Once it gets going, anyway.
The main character is smoke-jumper Hannah (Jolie), the baddest of the bad. She parachutes off the backs of pickup trucks even though she’s knows she isn’t supposed to. She’s too cool to join the guys in a game of cornhole, but then she wows everyone with the beanbag equivalent of a perfect freethrow shot. It’s a good life, but Hannah’s been assigned to a fire tower because her supervisor, Ethan (John Bernthal) thinks she’s too much of a daredevil and needs to be taken down a peg.
Hannah’s cocky exterior is just an act, though, and being in the fire tower gives her a lot of face time with her demons. She’s wracked with guilt over a firefight she led that went very badly. She still has nightmares over it and thinks she’s a coward.
Then Hannah meets up with Connor (Finn Little), a traumatized preteen who saw his dad, Owen (Jake Weber) murdered in front of him. Some bad guys, Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) are after him because his dad did the right thing. We don’t know what that right thing is, but his dad did it and now he’s dead. Connor is desperate and lonely.
And oh, just in case fighting off the baddies isn’t enough of a conflict, Hannah and Connor find themselves in the middle of a massive fire Jack and Patrick set with a flare.
The violence and gore are graphic but not all that bad; there are PG-13 films that are much worse. A firefighter gets burned during the dream sequences, but the fire sticks to his clothes only. A lot of characters are beaten up or threatened with disfigurement. One woman is barely onscreen before she’s shot in the head. Then there’s the language: Hannah and the other characters drop about twenty F-bombs in the first ten minutes, and in just about every scene thereafter. This is all to be expected because R-rating.
Where Those Who Wish Me Dead goes wrong is its narrative stucture. I’m just spitballin’ here, but given that Hannah and Connor getting thrown together by circumstance is the main idea of the story, they probably should meet sooner than Act Two, right? Especially considering the whole movie is only an hour and forty minutes long? Yep.
Instead, we wade through a whole lotta flotsam. Patrick and Jack at the beginning of their crime spree. Hannah with the guys. The guys in a bar teasing a girl and her hipster boyfriend. Owen and Connor getting the heck out of Dodge, er, Florida. Ethan and his pregnant wife, Allison (Medina Senghore) having some alone time.
One especial headscratcher involves Connor petting a horse in an empty field when Owen takes a break from their flight from danger. Owen is nervous for some reason and tells Connor to be careful. Connor says it’s no big deal and goes on petting the horse. It seems to be an important moment because there are closeups of the horse’s eyes and face, as if Connor is communicating with the horse. Then Dad says it’s time to move on, which Connor reluctantly does. That’s it. We never see Connor with horses ever again, so there’s absolutely no point to the scene.
Rat-a-tat pacing would have been a boon, because as long as Hannah and Connor are together, the movie’s great. Angelina Jolie and Finn Little have a nice sister-brother dynamic that wasn’t explored nearly enough, and an energetic story would have allowed them to flex their acting muscles. Have Hannah be alone at the start of the movie, establish her post-traumatic-stress-syndrome and how she ended up in the fire tower, and once her isolation is clear, show her meeting Connor in the woods. Then as Connor learns to trust her, he opens up about his dad and his experiences, maybe even while Hannah tries to get him to safety. It could have all been done quickly and easily with well-timed vignettes.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate the movie, but it would have been so much better sans ploddy time-wasting and Connor’s Horse Whisperer scene.
National Classic Movie Day is tomorrow, and Taking Up Room is going to latch on to Classic Film & TV Café’s yearly celebration. Thanks for reading, and hope to see you then…
Those Who Wish Me Dead can be seen on HBO Max until June 13th or in theaters.
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