Advance word was that Those Who Wish Me Dead was the ever-busy Taylor Sheridan - writer of the suspect Sicario diptych, and the more nuanced Hell or High Water - luring Western audiences back into cinemas with a Nineties throwback action-thriller. (We may need reassurance that we're reentering a safe, familiar space, seeing as we now have to do so wearing a mask, after being scanned in and sanitised. Despite those cheerleading for a return to full normality, the stress hasn't receded, nor the virus.) It opens with the old-school sight of the New Line Cinema logo (now, we're told, "a WarnerMedia company"); and the first thing we see is smokejumper Angelina Jolie parachuting into a forest fire, suggesting we may well be in for some none-more-Nineties twofer of Terminal Velocity and Firestorm. (Ask your folks.) But no: this is un film very much de Taylor Sheridan - his directorial follow-up to 2017's Wind River - and so much of the first half is given over to solemn character business, straight-faced set-up that seeks to do for rural Montana what Hell or High Water did for the badlands of West Texas. Removing her helmet and 'chute, Jolie's Hannah is revealed to be haunted by a fiery tragedy in her past; the movie then shuffles freely between her, a pair of hitmen (Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult), a whistleblower (Jake Weber) and his young son (Finn Little), and - lest there be any red-blooded males out there who find themselves alienated by the prospect of a lady action hero - a sheriff's deputy (Jon Bernthal, the gym-bunny Duchovny) and his heavily pregnant wife (Medina Senghore). Sheridan displays some screenwriting dexterity in laying all these cards out on the table; it's harder to buy when they suddenly start bumping into one another once the hitmen start another, deadlier blaze as a distraction tactic.
As a director, meanwhile, Sheridan is displaying the very opposite of a light touch; a terse double-tap may be all he has in his filmmaking arsenal. (I dread to think what he'd have done with the Sicarios, which were blunt enough as they were.) Hannah's trauma is put over via not one but two flashbacks, but still remains as vaguely delineated as the whistleblowing business, something to do with abandoning a cluster of babes in the woods ("I read the wind wrong!"). It does, at least, afford Sheridan the opportunity to shoot full-screen close-ups of children in acute distress... and holding... and zooming in... and holding. He knows when to put the accelerator down - we're done, dusted and demasked within 100 minutes, an unarguable plus point - and, for better and worse, how to make a loud, attention-grabbing scene: the loudest, and most misjudged, finds the hitmen going after Senghore's mother-to-be inside a woodland cabin. Yet the briskness of those enduring Nineties thrillers (Speed, The Fugitive, In the Line of Fire) has been replaced by a dour, steroidal heaviness; any trace of wit in this script, or in Michael Koryta's source novel, has gone up in smoke. The handling made me better appreciate what David Mackenzie and Jeff Bridges achieved with Hell or High Water, namely going against the grain of the most portentous writing, and actively seeking out and relaxing into those few pockets of levity.
As for Angelina, who might well have been the main attraction in a film altogether less clenched: well, she doesn't look much like any firefighter I know (one fleeting implausibility among many: the pristine white bra she wears beneath her hazard suit, pure Frederick's of Hollywood), and she's really nobody's idea of a team player; even when Sheridan catches her joshing with her all-male team, she's the only one getting close-ups. She's still a star, which is to say the most compelling element on screen, but after the commercial failure of those projects Jolie tailored to fit her own persona - the rejection of By the Sea, the last major American film to recognise sex as a driving human instinct, must sting her as it should sting us all - it's as though the movies don't know what to do with her. Sheridan, in particular, has no better idea of what to do with Jolie than to knock her around, putting splinters in her palms, blisters on her feet, and worse besides on her face and body when she runs up against Hoult in a copse. I'm not sure studio bosses really know what audiences want their few remaining stars to do nowadays - we're back to a pre-pandemic problem, forgotten the moment they shuttered the Cineworld - but this kind of joyless masochism surely isn't it. (As the film's so-far shrugging box office underlines.) As ever with modern multiplex fodder, we're handed crumbs for which we're meant to be pathetically grateful: copious location shooting, a higher-than-average percentage of analogue activity. (The mounting forest inferno has scale, but a couple of isolated effects sequences - most notably, one involving Angelina taking her parachute for a joyride off the back of a flatbed truck - look horribly rushed.) It's just we had fun with our action-thrillers back in the day: more fun, certainly, than a straining dickswing like this can ever permit.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is now showing in cinemas nationwide.