Tuesday, September 16, 2014

No Good Deed

No Good Deed
Dir. Sam Miller

2.5 out of 5

No Good Deed presents us with two characters that almost always seem to meet in high-concept thrillers.  First, there is Colin (Idris Elba), who begins the film being denied parole for his manslaughter conviction on the grounds that he is a "malignant narcissist" only capable of pretending like he has control over his violent emotions.  He manages to escape while being returned to the penitentiary and winds up at the house of Terri (Taraji P. Henson), a former district attorney who's now a stay-at-home mom with a young daughter and infant son.  She is smart, capable, and skeptical of the stranger on her doorstep; he is equally intelligent and convincing enough with his initial pleasantries to gain entry into Terri's house, though gradually his true nature is revealed.  Already Colin has killed three people onscreen - two prison guards and the ex-girlfriend (Kate del Castillo) who wisely moved on once he was incarcerated - and seems liable to continue his spree.

It takes more than such basic parts to build a better mousetrap, but that doesn't stop No Good Deed from trying.  The movie tries to avoid the more obvious paths by defining Colin as a villain whose disingenuous words are often more threatening than his physical presence.  It helps that he's played by Elba, an actor that eschews flamboyance for an understated charisma that makes Colin's inevitable violent outbursts even more terrifying.  However, as Terri's suspicion comes to a head and Colin starts terrorizing her in earnest, No Good Deed falls back on the tried and true.  Not necessarily because it wants to - the film's almost apologetic in its employment of home-invasion tropes - but because it's too tentative to try anything else.

No Good Deed once again proves that Elba and Henson are fantastic actors.  They take material that's clearly beneath them and invest it with more honesty than you'd expect.  But expectations are ultimately what hold the move back from achieving more than a baseline of competency.  Director Sam Miller, who also worked with Elba on the critically-acclaimed British series Luther, squeezes as much menace and tension as he can from stock characters and situations.

You wonder what would be possible if the film could fully embrace a compelling alternative.  Maybe if you squint hard enough you'll see a commentary on male entitlement and a pervasive misogyny that hides in plain sight.  There's also a late-game twist that's more shrewd than clever, but efficiently lends perspective to Colin's actions and obliquely refutes general complaints about the veracity of thrillers like these.  It all adds up to a film that's reasonably entertaining if not exactly timeless, one that's geared more towards providing relief - for its protagonist and audience alike - than inspiring awe.

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