By Leah Greenblatt
May 12, 2021 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Once upon a time, before she ascended to a place where only gods and global ambassadors live, Angelina Jolie made a lot of movies. About 30 of them altogether, each one following the next in ways that seemed not so much calculated as quixotic; weighty Oscar bait segueing into soft-core melodramas, evil queens rubbing elbows with cool-eyed assassins and kung-fu pandas.

If anything has defined her choices, it's her fondness for a certain kind of cinematic pulp — flagrantly larger-than-life narratives custom-fit for an actress who, whatever the reach of her Academy Award-winning talents, would never be cast as the girl next door. And Those Who Wish Me Dead (out Friday) is the sort of film that a decade or two ago probably would have dropped into her catalogue without a ripple: violent, operatic, and cheerfully illogical, a hambone thriller waiting to fulfill its VOD destiny.

In fact there's a distinct whiff of the last millennium in Dead, so familiar are the basic beats of its narrative (though the book it's based on, by Michael Kortja, was released in 2014). Jolie's Hannah Faber, a brash Montana firefighter in combat boots and a rib-grazing ponytail that is surely not department regulation, loves to drink beer with the boys and parachute from speeding pickup trucks for thrills.

On the inside, though, she's still traumatized by a blaze that took the lives of three boys she couldn't save. So when her ex, a police officer named Ethan (Jon Bernthal), suggests that a stint in the local fire tower might do her good, she heads for the literal hills — at the same time that two enterprising hitmen (Nicholas Hoult and Game of Thrones' Aidan Gillen) are methodically working their way through a call sheet of witnesses to a vast conspiracy whose details are deemed irrelevant in our onscreen journey. (Just know that it involves "governors, congressmen… people with a lot to lose," and that it will entail one extremely abbreviated Tyler Perry cameo.)

One of those targets is a forensic accountant (Jake Weber) smart enough to understand that he and his young son, Connor (Reckoning's Finn Little), won't last long unless they run. And so worlds converge in ways that only fate and unfortunate screenwriting can make them — Connor a sweet kid in desperate need of a safe haven, Hannah with the chance to redeem her tortured conscience and use everything she's ever learned on a ropes course.

Dead is directed and co-written by Taylor Sheridan, who penned Sicario and 2016's great, lean neo-Western Hell or High Water. He also shared screen credit on the recent Michael B. Jordan-led Without Remorse, a graceless Tom Clancy reboot whose dialogue may as well have been written by an air fryer. Here he's very fond of expository banter and drone shots arcing over mountaintops, coming most alive in the tautly choreographed scenes where inevitably, people die.

What he can't fix is the movie's innate silliness, from Jolie's improbable hair to the not-Bob-Seger-but-it-could-be rock that dad-boogies over the soundtrack. (There's a fascination with wildfire too that feels strangely celebratory, considering the havoc real ones have wreaked so recently.) Unlike Remorse and certain other bloody misfires out this month, Dead isn't particularly ugly or offensive; it's engaging enough and sometimes almost unintentionally fun. For a star who so rarely chooses to be on screen these days though, it feels like another kind of mortal sin, at least in Hollywood: forgettable. Grade: C+

(Those Who Wish Me Dead is in theaters May 14, and will be available simultaneously on HBO Max for 30 days.)

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