Movie Review: Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)

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poster-780TLDR: four chainsaws out of five…but I feel I’m being generous. Also, WORDPRESS DELENDA EST.

So this is a movie starring my childhood hero, Angelina Jolie (oddly enough, my mother likes Angelina, but only as Evelyn Salt and Maleficent), and made by Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan is the guy who wrote Sicario (which is supposedly the best movie about Mexican cartel violence and American intelligence agency incompetence, ever), wrote and directed Wind River (which was very good overall), and is involved with the modern-cowboy show Yellowstone (which a cowgirl of my acquaintance says is good but highly inaccurate despite the fact that it stars some very famous horses…yes, she does watch it for the horses), and apparently is a genuine, rodeo-participating, cowboy who owns some of said horses.

Also, I’ve always thought smokejumpers were really cool.

Review up front: So, overall….this is about three quarters of a perfect movie. The perfect movie would have had the fire as the primary plot and the kid plus the hitmen as the secondary plot. More information about how fires behave, and what the usual procedure is for fighting them, not to mention more information about the geography of the story, would have helped immensely in raising the stakes of the story. As it is, the primary threat of the movie is the relentless hitmen, and the fire is kind of an afterthought, when (IMHO) it should be something hanging over everybody’s heads the whole time and come roaring in at the end.

Also, and this is fairly important, there would need to be scenes of badass firefighters actually fighting fire. ’cause, and I’ll put this right up here in front, there aren’t any.

That being said, as it’s own movie, this one is almost pretty good. I liked all the characters–including the villains, as villains–and the dialogue was, overall, almost bearable and sometimes even pretty good, because it sounds like something people would say who are those kind of people in that kind of situation. (“Sheriff, your wife is on the phone. Do you want to talk to her?” “Absolutely not.”) Most of this is due to the actors being really good. Jon Bernthal is really charismatic and intense; Edward Norton is….oh, um. So, apparently the person I have in the rest of the review referred to as Edward Norton is in fact DISCOUNT Edward Norton, AKA Aiden Gillen. Whoops. He’s a really good villain: calm, intelligent, competent, motivated, and maintains his demeanor and yet is increasingly deranged (and increasingly injured to a level that could almost inspire sympathy.) There’s also the black actress who plays the badass pregnant wife (Medina Senghore,) and she looks like a normal, actual, genuine person in this movie–which, let me tell you, must have taken some doing. I mean, she’s the spitting image of my college roommate. I’m impressed that she managed to act like a normal person when she’s opposite Jon Bernthal doing his charismatic movie-star thing…and still holds her own. Kudos.

There are only a few things that chipped away at my suspension of disbelief–that a person alone in the middle of a forest wouldn’t have at least one gun…what, exactly, is your very sharp axe going to do if you run into a bear?–and the hitmens’ motivation for doing what they do is imperfectly justified to the point where I paused the movie to write about it (see below.)

Overall, yeah, I would have liked more of a smokejumper movie and less of a hitman movie. But it’s pretty good overall.

So our story opens with two storylines: a middle-aged father who gets extremely nervous when he sees that some District Attorney’s house has mysteriously blown up with the family inside, and Angelina (Hannah), a woodland firefighter/smokejumper suffering from PTSD of the gasp-and-ricochet-out-of-bed variation. Also, Jon Bernthal is hanging around. He’s with the local Sheriff’s office. (Heh, he says “Make good choices!” That’s a line I have previously only heard from an Agronomy major from Iowa.) Hannah, though….isn’t. She’s seeking thrills and taking risks and may or may not be actually suicidal. So, spending the fire season in a tower, alone, might or might not be the best thing for her, overall.

It turns out that Dad (a forensic accountant who works for the now-deceased DA) and Son were right to run, because a pair of hitmen is after them. Also, Jon Bernthal appears to be the Kid’s uncle, and his wife’s pregnant. Oh dear. Dad writes out his secrets and gives them to the Kid, with instructions to not read them and to give them to someone trustworthy.

(When given a free choice of vehicles, what do the very best assassins choose? A Ford F150! Woo! GO RHINO! What kind of cars do boring forensic accountants choose? Volkswagons. What kind of cups do firefighters drink out of? RED SOLO CUPS THAT IS RIGHT! I don’t even think Walmart sells them any more. I think you have to go to Target for those things.) Deputy Bernthal consults with his chief, who is interested but offers limited help. We also get a little more on Hannah, who is racked with guilt over being leaving civilians to burn to death. Frankly….not surprising.

Stuff starts to hit the fan, with our very efficient hitmen setting up an ambush on a deserted back road (well…I mean…it’s still a two-lane highway. But I guess that seems kind of deserted to city folk.) Dad stays in the car and orders Kid to head out and call the news. Somehow, I’m unconvinced that this is possible for either of them after the car has literally flown down a giant ravine and been riddled with bullets.

Meanwhile, however, the hitmen also have to kill another innocent bystander who rolls up before hightailing it out (I TOLD YOU GUYS IT WASN’T ACTUALLY DESERTED, DUMBASSES)….at about which point Deputy Bernthal rolls up. The Kid rolls up to the tower/river and bumps into Hannah. Also, the hitmens’ boss has rolled up to a truck stop, and this is pretty bad news.

OK, SO. Pause.

This is the scene that the movie uses to justify the “relentless hitmen who pursue the heroes through hell and high water AND ACTUAL FOREST FIRES)” trope. Which is smart. Because that’s a dumb as hell trope and needs to be justified if it’s going to be used in a serious movie. Problem is….it just tripped over its own feet. The scary black hitman-boss wants them to follow up with Kid because a) they promised, b) it’s possible that Dad had duplicates of everything they already retrieved from the DA’s office, and c) it’ll probably be with the Kid if so. Duplicates. Of case-critical information. That the DA’s office was already in possession of but which their team retrieved. Now, I know that it’s not really likely that everything included in a casefile is going to have backups and/or be on the cloud–but if it’s entered the public record, enough of it’s going to be in enough places, like warrants and affidavits, that breaking and entering isn’t going to solve your problem.

(Although, on further research, someone on reddit points out that the black hitman-boss’s car has government plates. Which…whatever. I stand by what I said.)

Not to mention something else already established by this movie that messes with this premise on a fundamental level: the “information” Dad gave Kid isn’t on a flash drive, or in a briefcase. It’s LITERALLY WRITTEN ON THE BACKS OF A COUPLE OF NAPKINS. Also, these guys have no way of knowing that said “information” is with the kid and not, say, in the car or on Dad’s body.

Now, change this to, “they want the kid alive as leverage,” or, “he saw our faces,” and it makes marginally more sense. But as is, this is stupid. Also, beause it’s SOP for hitmen to wear suits, they change into them at this point. However, they also have badges. However, because this movie INSISTS on adhering to stupid action movie tropes, (DISCOUNT) Edward Norton-hitman announces that they’re going to kill everyone who sees their faces henceforth. Also, he starts a forest fire and gazes at it for a while. (See, going with less movieness and more realism at this point would work better. Fire is cool, but fire is also scary. Just let the guys have a natural reaction to a fire [wow, cool, wish I could stay and watch. Hey, it’s…kind of spreading fast. Um. I’m, um, yeah…] and then show them skedaddling out of there.)

Hannah’s radio, it turns out, has been blown out by the lightning. They have a twelve-mile hike into town. A theoretically heartwarming moment is had when Kid explains what happened to Hannah and hands over the NAPKIN OF INFORMATION to her, which she looks at for about two seconds before deciding they are starting their hike right now.

Aaaaannnd uh oh, the hitmen duo have just arrived at Pregnant Wife. Heh, she immediately retreats through the door and reaches for the bear spray, not that it helps. Hitman #2 spots the nursery (but not her giant six-months-pregnant belly?) and they decide to torture her a bit just to make sure. Which is when she promptly starts lying to them to throw them off. And then there’s a pretty awesome little bit where she gives her husband the distress code (“FUCKING SURVIVALISTS!”) and then turns the bear spray into a flamethrower and setsĀ  Edward Norton on fire then grabs a shotgun and escapes. WOO BABY.

So meanwhile, Hannah and Kid have to leapfrog a field in another lightning storm, and Hannah gets struck. This is kind of a pointless sequence, used as it is to lead into a bonding moment between them…if you want an action sequence, put one in and make it plot-relevant. If you want a bonding moment, put that in and make it worthwhile. He confesses that his father died right in front of him. This scene doesn’t work on EITHER level: it’s not plot-relevant and it’s not touching or meaningful.

Deputy Bernthal (plus the Sheriff) show up at his house immediately, but the Sheriff immediately gets shot and our very efficient hitmen take Bernthal prisoner to help them search. Which is smart on their side, because he actually does immediately find tracks.

So, it’s apparent that Hannah doesn’t know about the big fire (which is at zero percent containment), because she and Kid pause for a break and a campfire. Hannah gets her moment to confess what has been bothering her. She was in charge of a crew and screwed up: three boys died and she could only watch. But we do get this exchange:

Kid: “I watched my mother die of cancer.”
Hannah: “It is impossible to feel sorry for myself around you.”

Hah.

Bernthal decides he’s had enough at this point, and flips out into taunting/attacking the hitmen, attempting to get them to kill him. It’s two to one, though, and Edward Norton decides to up the ante by telling him that he’s going to be the one who kills Kid….because that’s how badly he, Norton, does not want to shoot a pregnant woman. I’m pretty sure he’s lying. Hitman #2 thinks he’s just losing it, man.

At this point, Hannah and Kid spot the fire; this means they will have to turn around, get back to the tower, and hopefully hook up with a chopper that’s going to be coming out to check on her.

(Pregnant Wife, meanwhile, has saddled up and is heading out into the woods. Personally, I’d have gone with the ATV myself, as late-stage pregnancy + jolting movements apparently don’t tend to go very well together?)

…and Bernthal plus hitmen have arrived at the tower. They send him up….and….#2 Guy climbs a tree. That’s cheating. Edward Norton isn’t doing so well, which is not news to his partner….Hannah and Kid run for it, Bernthal is stuck in the tower, AND OH GLORY THE PREGNANT LADY ARRIVES TO PROVIDE SUPPORT BY FIRE. (oops)

AND BOOM SHE SHOT THE BAD GUY. SHOOT HIM AGAIN ALREADY. SEE THIS IS WHY WE NEED HIGH CAPACITY DEER RIFLES. COMMON SENSE GUN CONTROL. SHOOT HIM AGAIN LADY. Oh, she did. Nice. Now, that was satisfying. That is how you write a good villain and give him his good comeuppance.

(Meanwhile, did we mention it’s actually pretty unrealistic that Hannah doesn’t actually have a gun….in the middle of the forest, in Montana?)

Hannah and Kid are getting closer to the fire….she starts giving him instructions to going on alone.
Meanwhile, Pregnant Lady goes up the tower to check on her husband, who is hurt pretty badly (he’ll make it, right? Right?? It’s only that his wife is pregnant, not like he was going to retire in three days.) Also the fire is almost on them.

Hannah approaches the fire alone. Oh, wait, no. Hitman #2 is still running around like a dumbass. Hannah attacks him with her axe (did we mention she doesn’t have a gun?) but all this nets her is getting repeatedly punched in the face by a semi-insane hitman. The Kid comes back….and wow, Hitman #2 asks him “Could you turn around for me?” Ow.

But it’s ok, because Hannah beats him to mostly death with her pulaski and leaves him to burn to death. She and Kid take refuge in a creek and survive! Nice. The firetower has also survived, and so has Pregnant Lady, who signals to some hotshots in the plane that goes by. Oh, these are the guys who were Hannah’s friends and past crew from the beginning.

The crew calls in a medevac but…uh oh. No rush. Damn it. One of these days, Jon Bernthal will star in a good movie and survive until the end.

Kid is having some existential angst prior to his interview, but Hannah promises him that she’ll stay there and help him figure it out….

…the end.

Again, I give it 4/5. It has almost all the right ingredients. It just didn’t mix them very well together.