It is very easy to root for a movie like Those Who Wish Me Dead: a curt thriller that focuses all of its stakes on seven human beings in a mostly constrained period and space, serious in tone without going up its own ass about it, built around a proper movie star, and best of all, clocking in at just 100 minutes, after credits. It's the kind of no-fuss genre flick that was the bread and butter of the popcorn movie industry till sometime in the early '00s, when a film could have some ambitions without being a bloated tentpole.

Sadly, it's also not all that good, for a bunch of different small reasons, though the one that seems most fundamental is that it's a shaggy, clumsy script. This was adapted from Michael Koryta's 2014 novel of the same name by a rotating cast of writers, including Koryta himself; the last polish was done by Taylor Sheridan, who also ended up with directing duties, and who would have seemed like a strong choice for this kind of material not all that long ago: given this story's focus on tough, brutal procedure split between multiple groups of protagonists, against the backdrop of the American West stripped clean of its romantic associations,  2015's Sicario and 2016's Hell or High Water both seem like they would have been good training for what Those Who Wish Me Dead asks of its writer. And in the moments where it works, it works in a fairly similar register to those. But it spends an awful lot of time not working, mostly I think because it has such a hard time balancing all of its different plot chunks. Pride of place and scale of celebrity both suggest that we're mostly interested in Hannah Faber (Angelina Jolie), a Montana fire jumper who feels personally guilty for the deaths of four people in a recent forest fire, and it's not entirely clear that she shouldn't, given the implication that her current position in a fire-watching tower is at least in part an attempt by the higher-ups to put her someplace that she can't do any real harm. We get to learn a bit about her, and a bit about the culture of wildfire-fighting in the U.S. northwest - unsurprisingly, it involves a lot of cocksure ego and snarling libertarian tendencies - and the rhythm of this all is quite satisfying, as we're allowed to just hang out with a unique little population of highly intense personalities.

The biggest mistake Those Who Wish Me Dead ever makes is to not consider this enough. Indeed, even by the time we've gotten to fully know Hannah, we also meet the assassin brothers Blackwell, Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), and whatever other problems crop up with the film, I think these two are the most insoluble. For one thing, there is no amount of squinting that allows us to pretend that Gillen and Hoult are related, and it's not like the two actors are doing much of anything to imply that kind of relationship. They end up coming across as the kind of snappily ironic self-aware gangster duo that littered the American cinema landscape in the wake of Pulp Fiction - another throwback to the 1990s - but since Those Who Wish Me Dead has declared a ban on irony, the brittle "dudes talking shop" energy of the Blackwells' conversations falls miserably flat. It also doesn't help that, in a cast that's not exactly dripping with great performances, Gillen is the most obvious flat note, never apparently finding an angle on his character the way Hoult does, drawing notes of nervous doubt into his pointed facial features.

I wasn't watching with a stopwatch, but my sense is that the two irritated killers get the most screentime of anybody in film; maybe it just feels that way because they're the least pleasant company. The rest of the ensemble includes Owen Casserly (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant who realises after the Blackwells' first hit that they've been hired by mob boss Arthur Phillip (a cameoing Tyler Perry) to kill anyone with information on an unspecified crime that Owen was himself instrumental in uncovering; he immediately goes on the run with his son Connor (Finn Little), and when the killers catch up with him in the Montana woods, he's just able to provide the boy with advice for navigating the wilderness before getting torn apart by bullets. Connor eventually winds up with Hannah, and their salty-mouthed, mutually distrustful relationship certainly seems like it ought to form the emotional backbone of the film, except it arrives late, and the movie keeps cutting away, either to the Blackwells hunting for Connor, or to Sheriff Ethan Sawyer (Jon Bernthal), Hannah's antagonistic ex, and his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore), who are tangled up in the killers' plot.

Presumably this approach to constructing the conflict and the world worked better when Those Who Wish Me Dead was a novel; it feels like there could be something to several tendrils working their way tighter and tighter down to the story's core, defining it as we go along. In the film, it just feels shapeless and fuzzy, shortchanging Hannah despite Jolie being the very obvious draw here, attempting a return to a mode of movie stardom she hasn't really exercised since Salt and The Tourist in 2010. And despite the primordial effectiveness of "traumatised adult and child warily join forces and save each other" as a narrative trope of great antquity. Nor does it help matters that Bernthal is the only cast member who's really doing better than adequate work, hitting exactly the right note for this kind of fundamentally junk food material, in which he exaggerates his character's most colorful characteristics without feeling like he's playing a caricature.

The bigger issue, maybe, is that despite all appearances, Those Who Wish Me Dead isn't really meant to be a character-driven movie at all, but a kind of secret disaster movie, in which characters are given just enough definition that we know how to tell them apart when, inevitably, a forest fire breaks out, and the three-pronged narrative goes to four, as the different groups find themselves on the run from the inferno. Maybe this approach would even work, too, but for two things: first, the fire doesn't show up until the film's last third. And second, Sheridan doesn't really have the goods as an action filmmaker. While cinematographer Ben Richardson does a fine job of painting the nighttime woods in escalating shades of red and orange, it's hard to claim that there is any other element of the film's production that really comes across as exciting or dangerous. And so does it fall into an in-between spot: the characters aren't good enough to be a character drama, the action isn't good enough for it to be an action thriller. But at least it's modest enough that it never feels like too much of promise has been lost.