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Writer-director Taylor Sheridan has become a name brand amongst cinefiles over the past five years. Seeing his name in a movie’s credits, either as a screenwriter (Sicario and its sequel, the outstanding Hell Or High Water) or as a director (the riveting Wind River with Elizabeth Olsen) meant that you went out your way to check that film out, because it was going to offer an unconventional, mature approach to topics like Midwestern poverty, the American drug trade, and other ripped-from-the-headlines concepts.

Unfortunately, Sheridan has raised his own bar so high that when he fails to meet it -- as is the case with his latest movie, Those Who Wish Me Dead -- the disappointment of dashed expectations can sour the whole moviegoing experience. I’ve come to expect a lot more from Taylor Sheridan as a storyteller than what is offered in Dead. The fact that Sheridan collaborates with other screenwriters, including the author of the book on which this movie is based, might help explain why his unique and rugged voice is largely absent. It leads to a harmless and forgettable movie you’ll enjoy on HBO Max, but would be annoyed if you trekked out to a theater to take it in.

Angelina Jolie is distractingly beautiful as a Montana firefighter.

What an awful problem to have, right? Gorgeous A-list movie star Angelina Jolie looks too much like a movie star in the movie in which she has been hired to star? Hear me out, though. Jolie’s an outstanding actress, there’s no doubt about that. And we have seen her bury herself into roles, physically and emotionally, so that she can burrow beneath the surface of her chosen character and shed the baggage of the audience saying, “Hey look, it’s Angelina Jolie!”

That doesn’t happen in Those Who Wish Me Dead. Even when she’s fully suited up in firefighter gear, Jolie still looks pristine and camera ready, shining bright in her closeups when we’re supposed to be fearing for her safety. To that extent, Those Who Wish Me Dead often reminded me of the 1990s vehicles for bankable actresses such as Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock. No one went to see 1997’s Conspiracy Theory or 1995’s The Net because of the admirable character work being done by either actress. You went to see a movie star doing movie-star things. In that sense, Jolie’s turn as a rugged and risky firefighter could be considered a throwback, but the industry has evolved away from those glossy and shallow thrillers, so this feels like a step backwards.

The plot, and the effects, in Those Who Wish Me Dead are pretty generic.

No amount of movie-star wattage can distract you from the fact that the story driving Those Who Wish Me Dead forward is about as by-the-numbers as they come. After an accountant unearths some shady dealings and reports the potential crimes, he’s forced to grab his son (Finn Little) and flee their Florida home because assassins have been dispatched to silence them. The pair head for Montana, where the accountant has a brother (Jon Bernthal) in law enforcement. But before long, the accountant is dead, the son is on the run, and a forest fire set by the assassins is complicating everything.

The fire-fighting scenes involving Angelina Jolie and Finn Little make for exciting trailer footage, though they are limited to the final 15 minutes of this too-long thriller. And even when the movie commits to the dangers caused by an out-of-control blaze, director Taylor Sheridan opts for CGI flames instead of practical (and borderline dangerous) fires. So it’s difficult to fully invest in the tension of the movie’s natural drama when the too-beautiful movie star isn’t really in any danger because the mediocre CGI fires are “raging” around her. Man, this movie could have been better.

Taylor Sheridan is capable of delivering something that’s much better than Those Who Wish Me Dead.

I’m sorry for returning to this point, but my expectations for a new Taylor Sheridan movie were very high, so I’m harshly judging a movie that’s merely fine because I know Sheridan is capable of so much more. There are glimpses of the fascinating character development that he’s brought to his previous dramas. The scenes involving Jon Bernthal’s sheriff and his pregnant wife (played by Medina Senghorne) are completely badass, injecting the few surprises that linger in the margins of this exercise. But the movie stumbles when it moves away from them to focus on the tender but predictable relationship forged between Jolie’s character and Finn Little, or the bumbling assassins played by Nicholas Hoult and the typecast Aidan Gillen.

If you are looking for a passable 90s-style cable-worthy thriller that lacks thrills but gives you a captivating movie star in “peril,” then Those Who Wish Me Dead should check your boxes for a guilt-free weekend viewing. But if you expected Taylor Sheridan to continue evolving as a storyteller, pushing the boundaries and challenging the rote obstacles of a predictable genre the way that he did in his previous films, then this firefighting movie is bound to leave you cold.

4 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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