Angelina Jolie brandishes her axe in "Those Who Wish Me Dead".

A-F*cking-Plus: “Those Who Wish Me Dead”

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is the action movie I want more action movies to be. It’s practical, it’s personal, and it builds tension from detail. It’s about how small, tactical decisions made by two opposing forces change the situation in ways neither expect. The script is smart as hell, and makes a familiar premise feel unique and refreshingly different.

Angelina Jolie plays Hannah, a smokejumper crew boss who makes a terrible mistake. Smokejumpers are firefighters who work against wildland fires. They parachute into remote areas in order to contain those fires before they grow larger and unmanageable. Hannah misreads the wind, and loses one of her crew and a family of hikers. There wasn’t really anything she could do, but the blame has to be pinned somewhere and she’s happy to heap it on herself.

Unable to pass the psych evaluation, she won’t be jumping out of planes anymore. Instead, she’ll be on firewatch in a remote tower. She keeps an eye out for any signs of fire and radios them in. The premise from here on is familiar. Assassins are after a kid named Connor, and an action hero stranded in the wilderness is the only one who can save him.

If the set-up is familiar, what makes “Those Who Wish Me Dead” special? The rest of it feels unique. The dialogue isn’t what we hear in a thousand Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or superhero movies. No one’s dropping one-liners.

The assassins are practical, smart, and efficient, but they’re hamstrung by their employers failing to provide a second team. Played by Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”) and Nicholas Hoult (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), they make mistakes by trying to compensate and rush the job. The assassins aren’t some unbelievable cinematic team of unmatched evil. They’re not infallible in their choices. It’s their increasing desperation to finish the job and frustration with the situation that make them intimidating. They feel more human and that makes them more immediate and real.

One of the tensest moments involves the assassins instructing someone movement by movement how to throw his weapon away, kneel, fall forward, put his hands behind his back. It’s not played as a meeting of uber-badasses, or as a standoff where villains give someone 20 chances to growl about how they’ll rip their head off later. It’s not played with dramatic close-ups or emotional performances. It’s tense simply because it’s so practical, so matter-of-fact, because as viewers we understand how each step is a decreased chance of escape for the person being disarmed.

Hannah is creative, experienced, and trained to be decisive in life-or-death situations, but she doesn’t have the skills or equipment the assassins do. She knows the woods, but neither is she going full Rambo. She understands her environment and makes smart decisions in situations that soon involve lightning storms and a raging fire. She’s not making everything into a deadly weapon or doing anything superhuman. She’s mostly trying to hike out of the situation with Connor in tow, which is what any of us would do. This makes her feel more immediate and real, too.

It’s also easy to forget because she’s such an icon, but Angelina Jolie is one of the best actors in the medium’s history. She won an Oscar and Golden Globes three years in a row before most anyone knew her name. She’s delivered dramatic work as good as “Changeling”, and comedic work as capably as out-acting Brad Pitt in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. It’s also easy to forget because “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is only the fifth live-action film she’s acted in across the last decade. (She’s written three and directed four films in that same span, though.)

She does superb work in a film that doesn’t focus heavily on emotional performance. There are no monologues, and the dialogue is terse and to the point. Nonetheless, her performance nails a sense of someone who’s not just traumatized, but who’s good at covering it up.

The moments of dissociation she has, she shifts into a thousand yard stare. These aren’t tearjerking emotional moments. They’re part of her day, every day, an interruption to the performance Hannah puts on for others and for herself.

Jolie’s had intermittent Bell’s palsy, so I can’t say whether slack features on one side of her face in some moments was an intentional decision she chose, or an element of her as an actress they kept. Either way, including it goes a long way to deepening the reality of a character. Hannah has worked one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and palsy can result from head injury or emotional trauma, among other factors. While I do think Jolie’s smudged make-up looks a little too designed after fist-fighting in forest fires, keeping this element helps the character feel more real. My understanding is that disability depends on the severity of the condition, but it’s great that someone who’s dealt with it sees it incorporated in a film. A lot of filmmakers would have edited those takes out or “corrected” it in post (which is a bullshit mentality). The character is more authentic, human, and representative for its inclusion.

I also like that the movie doesn’t make Hannah into a great mother figure. There’s no Ripley and Newt dynamic here. Hannah is shit with kids, and has zero interest in becoming a parental figure to Connor. She takes care of him as he needs, and protects him not out of some amazing emotional connection, but because it’s what the situation requires. It’s insulting when movies need to create these kinds of bonds to increase the tension of protecting a child. People don’t protect children because they create a one-on-one parental bond through extended dialogue in a high-stakes situation; they protect children because it’s what you fucking do. If you’re parenting a kid because it gives you a redemption arc, you probably shouldn’t be parenting that child. Hannah doesn’t always like communicating with Connor, and she doesn’t need to be good at it to risk her life protecting him. I’m glad to see the sudden mother redemption trope left out of the movie completely.

Others intersect with the assassins and Hannah, but not in the thoroughly useless or sacrificial roles where movies like this usually shove side characters. Most of them play an important part to what happens.

In fact, the cast is exceptionally deep. Finn Little delivers an incredibly strong performance as Connor. The usual child-panicking-in-a-movie notes aren’t hit because those notes are ridiculous. Connor is smart, traumatized, untrusting, scared, determined. He shuts off in some moments, he’s a kid in others, and sometimes he does what’s in front of him because it keeps him going. He’s erratic because that’s what happens in the midst of coping with trauma.

I’ve mentioned Gillen and Hoult as the assassins, and they land an odd-couple working dynamic. Gillen is the superior and more forthright, but also more emotional. Hoult doesn’t see the big picture as well, but he’s more reserved and less prone to drastic decision-making.

Jon Bernthal (“The Punisher”) joins in a large role as a sheriff’s deputy, Ethan. Jake Weber (“Medium”) also shines in a supporting role. Yet its relative newcomer Medina Senghore who steals the show in several ways as Ethan’s resourceful, pregnant wife Allison. She’s one of the most awesome and unexpected characters I’ve seen in an action movie. As if that weren’t enough, even Tyler Perry, Tory Kittles, and James Jordan show up in bit parts.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a 90s action movie in style and pace, though I’d say it’s far superior to most of what the 90s had to offer. For one, you don’t have to put up with John Travolta. This is a film where situation, dialogue, performance, and patience between action scenes pays off.

Characters aren’t tumbling from one escalating set-piece to the next. They pause, reassess, make smart decisions, reverse old ones based on new information. When both sides make smart decisions, and those decisions go haywire because the other side isn’t standing still, we get to see an asymmetric cat-and-mouse game. A favorable firing position in one scene can turn into characters falling behind as they descend from it the next, and the movie translates these changing elements of give-and-take without ever having to say them out loud.

Nothing feels rushed here. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” takes its sweet time establishing the plot and how characters connect. It’s never complicated, but it is constantly evolving.

Intelligence often gets in the way of visual effects-heavy action movies. Genius is treated as kooky and explaining your plan as quickly and patronizingly as possible. Action screenplays tend to take one scene to insist someone’s intelligent, and then spend the next two hours with that character’s ego telling us the exact opposite.

There’s a dearth of action movies that treat intelligence as knowing how to fuse experience, patience, resilience, emotional maturity, and creativity. Don’t get me wrong, I love movies that are constant colorful explosions featuring ever-quipping sides of human beef. At a certain point, I do want more personal action movies, with a more focused scope, featuring intelligent people facing intelligent people, where a character weighing a decision can be far more tense than whether our explosions out-explode their explosions.

That doesn’t mean “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is gritty – it’s not. That doesn’t mean it isn’t outlandish – it is. It’s just refreshing to have an action movie where the characters in it feel intelligent and experienced in ways that are actually useful and have real-world applications.

I loved this movie. Part of that is because it’s really good, and part of that is because it feeds a desire for action movies that possess a different mentality and respect the time its characters take to think and not just act. It’s what I want out of traditional (i.e. non-superhero) Western action movies. It’s practical, it focuses on performance without being overdramatic, and the situation and scope are personal rather than epic. Rescuing a single child can mean a lot more on-screen than saving the universe.

It also brings back the action hero we never fully got in Angelina Jolie. Hell, you want to be pissed, look up “Salt” where they rewrote the screenplay when she replaced a man because the studio didn’t think a woman could rescue her husband.

Sign me up for “Those Who Wish Me Deader”, “Those Who Wish Me Dead with a Vengeance”, “Live Free or Wish me Dead”, and “A Good Day to Wish Me Dead”. I’m in. I will forward you ticket money.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is available on HBO Max.

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