Written by: Aimee Lagos
Directed by: Sam Miller
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Idris Elba, and Leslie Bibb
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
First he gets into your house. Then he gets into your head.
For the briefest of moments, No Good Deed looks as though it may not be content to just be a Blaxploitation riff on home invasion thrillers. A robotic voiceover from a news broadcast introduces us to Colin Evans (Idris Elba), a convict who may or may not have been involved in the disappearance of five girls but was definitely imprisoned due to his connection to a fatal barroom brawl. On the way to his probation hearing, he’s comforted by an elderly black guard who’s been praying for his release, while a white guard generally sneers in his direction.
With the recent incidents in Ferguson, it’s hard not to sense the racial tension bubbling beneath the surface, and things only become more tense when Evans goes before a mostly-white panel, where he appears to be quite erudite and contrite, only to be put back into his place by a stern white man who insists he displays signs of “malignant narcissism.” Unfortunately, the film is reluctant to engage this somewhat compelling premise (is Evans merely a misunderstood victim of our penal system like so many black men?) and instead chooses to quickly degenerate into a junky, rote thriller that feels like it barely escaped from the Lifetime Channel, with its only source of terror arising from its timely exploitation of increased awareness of domestic violence.
Rather than actually tease the possibility that Evans is innocent, the film removes all doubt: upon being denied parole, he promptly shoots the aforementioned guards, breaks free, and makes a beeline to Atlanta, where attempts to reunite with a former lover. Upon learning that she’s moved on with her life, he savagely murders her before fleeing town. Only a torrential downpour prevents his escape, as his car skids off the road, sending him to seek shelter a nearby house. As fate would have it, stay-at-home-mother Terry (Taraji P. Henson) finds herself alone for the evening (her husband has skipped off for a golfing retreat) with her two children, making her seemingly easy prey for Evans, who often finds himself compelled to violence against women who resist his charms.
Sony somewhat curiously canceled advanced screenings of No Good Deed earlier this week, citing the need to preserve the film’s twist, a somewhat dubious excuse considering the film’s been shelved for nearly two years (surely they didn’t just realize this about the ending). Rather, I have to wonder if the cancellation wasn’t due to the film reflecting other current headlines, particularly the Ray Rice debacle that has (very) rightfully incensed folks about the institutionalized, callous treatment of domestic violence. Watching a film in which a large man bullies and brutally assaults terrified women isn’t exactly appealing. While I’m sure the argument could be made that horror is often predicated on such scenarios, there’s something particularly unsettling about its treatment in No Good Deed—it’s so stark, violent, and nasty. (You could also make the argument that maybe it’s something that happens as we get older—it’s amazing but sobering how this sort of stuff begins to matter.)
Or you could just make the argument that No Good Deed simply botches it altogether by couching these grimly realistic scenes within a ludicrous, soap operatic yarn that mistakes cheap, table-turning thrills for catharsis. Whatever discomfort the film causes arises from this tonal disconnect: for much of the film, you’re cringing at the film’s unfortunate, brutal reflection of reality before it compels you to revel in its pulpy twists and turns; what started as a potentially fascinating examination of racial tension devolves into a dime store “psychological” thriller before completely deflating into complete junk that wastes so much talent.
If you remove the film from the shadow of current events (and given the preposterously fleeting nature of our outrage cycles, I’m guessing this will be possible for most by the time the film hits video in a few months), No Good Deed is decent at best, helmed with workmanlike steadiness by Sam Miller, who walks through the motions without much of a fuss by generating loud jolts and fits of violence (I’d consider them sanitized by the PG-13 rating but they’re actually no less vicious—merely mostly bloodless, which is an insane demarcation foisted upon us by the MPAA). If there’s any other tension generated, it’s courtesy of Elba playing somewhat against type—it’s actually quite unnerving to watch him move from silver-tongued charmer to predatory stalker.
Henson provides a fine foil, and credit is due to screenwriter Aimee Lagos working in a reveal that Terry is a former district attorney who specialized in battered women cases. If only, you know, Lagos had gone out of her way to make some observation about this problem other than “isn’t it awesome to whack a home invader in the face with a fire extinguisher?” You won’t be surprised to discover that she often commits the cardinal slasher movie sin of assuming her attacker will be put down by exactly one whack to the head, in case you were wondering just how formulaic No Good Deed is. Pretty much no cliché is left unturned, including the requisite twist Sony is so keen on protecting; even this is halfway predictable, not to mention almost wholly inconsequential (it mostly has the effect of subtly changing Evans’ motivations—turns out he’s definitely a psycho, but at least he has his reasons other than pure misogyny, I guess).
That both Henson and Elba are being subjected to this is pretty disheartening. Granted, most stars have this sort of movie floating around at the bottom of their résumé, but these two are too accomplished to be reduced to this. Not that I mind when talented stars show up in the genre—it’s just that No Good Deed is really slumming it, even if it does refreshingly offer people of color a chance to take center stage. But what comfort is this really if it’s only in the service of pandering stuff like this? Then again, as a white man, I also have to wonder if it’s really my place to judge this sort of thing—I sincerely hope its audience relishes this (if the reaction in my auditorium is any indication, they will—I overheard one lady who seemed to be pretty happy that someone had finally made a movie like this for black audiences).
Admittedly, No Good Deed is a ridiculous hoot (which is also problematic), the sort of movie where are audiences are compelled to shout at the oblivious characters on-screen and delight in the obligatory comeuppance, and it’s a triumph that minority audiences do have the rare opportunity to see themselves on screen (that this is somewhat becoming decreasingly rare is encouraging). Yet it feels too much like a consolation prize here: No Good Deed is merely confirmation that auto-piloted junk doesn’t discriminate. Even calling it “Blaxploitation” is a stretch since there’s nothing of that genre’s artistic flavor or singularity here—it’s merely a standard issue home invasion movie featuring minorities without actually being about them--or anything else, for that matter. Rent it!
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