Movies are back! Those Who Wish Me Dead may not be a certified Oscar contender, but it deserves some credit for its sheer novelty. This is a classic mid-budget, mid-quality, bonafide grown-up movie of the likes that have become increasingly rare ever since Marvel and DC began to dominate the big screen. And nothing against superheroes, but variety is the spice of life, and these types of competently made thrillers seem as though they’re a dying breed. At any rate, Those Who Wish Me Dead certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot of fun, and if you’re looking for a movie to be your entree back into real-life cinema-going, it’s an appealing choice.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is majorly nostalgic for a particular kind of 90s-era action thriller. It stars Angelina Jolie as Hannah, traumatized by a recent forest fire where she could not rescue three children, who are scheduled to spend the summer in a fire tower to monitor the surrounding forest. After she falls from the tower when it is struck by lightning, she encounters a young boy (Finn Little) covered in blood and carrying a pocket full of secrets. His father was in possession of some sensitive information, so sensitive that two anonymous agents (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) are determined to hunt them down before it gets out.
It’s not a complicated plot — it’s pure, high-octane popcorn material. But more than anything, it serves as a reminder of how good these types of movies can be when they’re written well and directed competently. It shouldn’t be surprising that the major action set pieces are engaging even without big noisy explosions and people jumping from helicopters, but it is. It shouldn’t be unusual that an action film is as character-oriented as Those Who Wish Me Dead, but it is. Each of the featured characters is elegantly established, and even though we’re given limited time to delve into their backstories, they’re all interesting in a way that characters in action films so often aren’t.
It’s amazing how much time we’re able to spend with both of our villains, not necessarily getting to know them as people because, for the most part, they remain enticingly enigmatic but just experiencing their world for a bit. The petty irritations of their working relationship imbue their otherwise exciting jobs with a sense of mundanity that provides a clever contrast. Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen are perfectly cast: both are among the best in the game at portraying an intense reservoir of cruelty that’s understated but bone-deep.
This is also probably as good a time as any to champion Jon Bernthal and demand that he get the kind of roles that properly showcase his unique talents. He’s a bit bro-ish here as the local sheriff, with his ever-present cop/firefighter/former high school football star vibes: tough, but honorable and even gentle in unexpected ways. He makes this look easy, and while, no, it’s not exactly Shakespeare, in lesser hands, a role like this could come across as a tough guy caricature, whereas Bernthal makes him a human.
It’s also a film that reminds the world why Angelina Jolie is such a magnetic star — although her character is fairly boilerplate, she exudes an effortless charm and poise even when she’s playing rough-around-the-edges and emotionally repressed. As she’s grown older, her persona has intriguingly shifted. When she was in her 20s, she presented as cold and unapproachable; here, although she’s still too-cool-for-school in a lot of ways, she also comes across as surprisingly warm, and it’s that element of her performance that allows for such a deep connection with the boy in her charge.
Because Finn Little as Connor is really the breakout star here. He’s a classic kid in peril, which isn’t always a recipe for success — sometimes these characters can come across as inexplicably annoying, as the plot revolves around them continually needing to be rescued. But Little brings such an emotional intelligence to Connor. He comes across as resourceful in his own way, and therefore endearing to the audience.
Although Those Who Wish Me Dead may not have the greatest fire effects or even a particularly plausible storyline, it is nevertheless incredibly likable. All of the main characters have the personality to carry a film that would otherwise rely exclusively on action sequences. The overall effect is a fast-paced, energetic production that can’t help but win over audiences. The on-screen chemistry between both Jolie and Little, and Gillen and Hoult would be worth the price of admission alone.