There may not be a major movie star with a stranger trajectory than Angelina Jolie. Born to Academy Award-winner Jon Voight and actress Marcheline Bertrand, Jolie broke through with a string of hits in the 90s, winning her own Oscar for Girl, Interrupted in 1999. As her career progressed, her film appearances became increasingly infrequent, and her gargantuan offscreen fame and pivot to directing threatened to eclipse her acting career entirely. But with Taylor Sheridan's Those Who Wish Me Dead, now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, Jolie reminds us why she became a star in the first place: there's no other star quite like her.
Those Who Wish Me Dead follows Hannah (Jolie), a smokejumper (translation: parachuting firefighter, which is as cool and terrifying as it sounds) in rural Montana haunted by a tragedy in her past that she chases with booze and reckless stunts. Stationed in a watchtower to scour the horizon for forest fires, she encounters Connor (Finn Little), a young boy on the run from two hardened assassins (Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult), and sets off to shepherd him to the local sheriff for safety (Jon Bernthal). The film's first third is weighed down by a lot of unnecessary table setting to maneuver all the characters into the wilderness where most of the action takes place, but once it gets there, Sheridan's skill with action setpieces makes for a tense and thrilling adventure.
The characters and dialogue are paper-thin, but strong performances from Jolie, Bernthal, and impressive newcomer Little lend them enough emotional weight to invest the audience in their plight. Unfortunately the same isn't true for Gillen and Hoult, whose characters don't really have enough substance to justify their casting—or how much solo screentime they get, especially when it comes at the expense of Medina Senghore as Bernthal's wife, a Black woman in Montana who runs a wilderness survival school and rides a horse while pregnant and wielding a deer rifle (where is her movie?!?).
But the whole thing really rides on Jolie's shoulders, and Sheridan gives her just enough material to run with. She's always been a striking screen presence, and her otherworldly beauty almost makes the whole enterprise implausible—no firefighter living in the woods has ever looked like Angelina Jolie, but that's because no person has ever looked like Angelina Jolie. In fact, as an aside, the classic star she might most resemble is Robert Redford. Like Jolie, Redford became arguably more famous for his charitable causes and directing career, and also like Jolie, his unbelievable looks sometimes threatened to undermine his prowess as an actor (the only flaw I can find with All the President's Men is that Redford is just too handsome to convincingly play a Washington Post reporter).
But Jolie (like Redford) is such an arresting screen presence that she's able to overcome whatever flaws exist in the screenplay, especially when she gets to play beats that merge her two most consistent off- and onscreen personae: ferocious maternal protector and fearless action heroine. It's a solid outing made worthwhile almost entirely by Jolie's star power, and hopefully it's a harbinger for more frequent performances to come.