In “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah, a rather unlikely-looking firefighter. Her character, a smoky-eyed smokejumper, combats her PTSD from a rescue mission gone wrong with day drinking and fatalism. She lives in Soda Butte, Montana, where the main attractions are a firefighter-training academy and a survival school. Hannah and her cowboy colleagues sip from hip flasks and pick fights with the pretty boys at the bar (because their beards are too manicured). But there are more serious troubles developing upwind.
After his colleague is assassinated, Owen (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant in Florida, packs his boy Connor (Finn Little) in the car and makes a cross-country run to Big Sky country. At first the kid seems pretty lame, whining, “I don’t want to play hooky, I have a chemistry exam at 8!” but we come to like him well enough because he’s friendly to grasshoppers and horses. Owen hopes to find safety with sheriff deputy and all-around tough guy Ethan (Jon Bernthal), who dwells in a hopefully well-insured home in the middle of fire-prone back country with his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore).
All of these nice people are on a collision course with two ruthless killers, Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult — like Jolie, he’s also implausibly pretty). Hannah needs a kid to save and Connor falls into her lap as he flees the predations of Owen’s attackers. She leads the boy to her fire-watch tower in the middle of nowhere, which is soon without power after a lightning strike. (If this film is to be believed, Soda Butte must be the dry lightning capital of the world.)
Tyler Perry has one scene playing the guy behind the guy, telling Jack, “Assume catastrophe and act accordingly,” while never taking off his shades. Soon our surly antagonists unload clips of AR-15 bullets at Ethan and start a forest fire that rages toward Hannah. After a resourceful counterattack singes his sneering visage, Jack takes on the aspect of Two Face. He barks, “I hate this place,” and our heroes retort, “It hates you back.”
In this role, Jolie is situated interestingly between her Lara Croft action hero early days and her more languid latter period. With her thin frame, bawdy jokes, and glowering alcoholic manner, she calls to mind the roles of Billy Bob Thornton, an eventuality that was hard to picture when he and Jolie were married 20 years ago. One wishes she allowed herself to become a little more unhinged in scenes when she faces down bad guys spraying automatic weapon fire with nothing but a fire axe.
Writer/director Taylor Sheridan is clearly a man in demand, and this script lands somewhere in between his best “Hell or High Water” and worst “Without Remorse.” At least he’s in his Western element, showcasing loudmouth drunks and unnecessary violence. He should have undertaken a deeper exploration of Hannah’s smoky nihilism, but he’s created a successful-enough potboiler amid yellow-orange flames punctuated with the occasional gout of hot blood.
Despite the hopeless odds, Hannah keeps Connor alive and, at last, her makeup begins to deteriorate — only the ravages of a firestorm can crease her immaculate brow.