Greetings again from the darkness. Taylor Sheridan was Oscar nominated for his screenplay of the superb HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016). He also wrote and directed WIND RIVER (2017), wrote the screenplays for both SICARIO movies, and is the creative force behind the TV series “Yellowstone”. He has excelled in generating slow-burn tension and conflict. For his latest film, he’s back in the director’s chair after co-writing the script with Charles Leavitt (BLOOD DIAMOND, 2006) and the 2014 novel’s author, Michael Koryta.
Oscar winner Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah, a thrill-seeking smokejumper (those folks who jump out of airplanes to fight fires and save lives) burdened with a faulty decision that cost lives in a massive forest fire the previous year. After flunking her psyche-evaluation, Hannah packs up the blame and her flashbacks and accepts her low-key assignment to the solitude of “Fire Tower”, a lookout perched above the tree line of Soda Butte, a park area within Yellowstone that encompasses the Continental Divide. Early on we see the camaraderie of the smokejumpers as they tease each other and “welcome” the new firefighters to the park.
In a seemingly unrelated storyline (although we know the intersection is coming), Owen (Jake Weber, “Medium”) and his son Connor (Finn Little) take an emergency detour on the way to school. Owen is a forensic accountant who uncovered some corruption while working for a Florida DA who was recently murdered by the same hitmen now chasing Owen and his son. Soon, Connor is wandering alone through the forest looking for someone he can trust, and up pops Hannah. The pair of calm-cool-collected hitmen are played by Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”) and Nicholas Hoult (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 2015). They track down Owen’s brother-in-law Ethan (Jon Bernthal, BABY DRIVER, 2017), who happens to work for the sheriff’s department in the same park.
Whether you call it a hunt or a chase, it’s always a bit creepy when professional hitmen are tracking down an innocent kid, and the tension is elevated when we see the bad guys take their direction from a higher-up bad buy played by Tyler Perry in one brief scene. The film features a hand full of excellent action sequences, including a shootout between the hitmen and Ethan’s pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore). Conveniently, Allison runs a survivor camp, and despite her belly, manages to put up quite a fight.
Cinematographer Ben Richardson (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, 2012) capitalizes on the extraordinary vastness and beauty of Soda Butte, and some of the forest fire effects are so good we can almost feel the heat. The supporting cast is excellent and the multiple story lines all work together nicely. For me, what prevented the film from reaching the level it could have, was the presence and performance of Angelina Jolie. Her last action movie was SALT in 2010, and here she seems too concerned with a look of glamor – right down to consistently brushed hair and perfect make-up – than fitting the profile of the courageous (and slightly off-center) smokejumpers. She stands out from the others on the team not because of her inherent extreme risk-taking, but rather because of her magazine-cover approach – something not limited to the hair and make-up, but also her posing and preening, including many of the same gazes from other movies like GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS (2000). I often admire and respect the choices actors make, but in this case, those choices work against everything else in what could have been an excellent dramatic thriller.
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