Sony Screen Gems
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, terror, menace, and for language.
Running time: 84 minutes.
One star out of four.
“Do you want me to just tell you what the twist is?” I asked my husband after going by myself to a Sunday-morning matinee of “No Good Deed.” “‘Cause you’re never gonna see it.”
“Sure,” he said.
The twist, you see, is supposedly such a crucial and startling thing that Sony decided critics couldn’t possibly be trusted with it. That’s the official reason that media screenings nationwide were cancelled at the last minute this past week: to preserve the element of surprise. This has got to be something truly groundbreaking along the lines of Bruce Willis being dead the whole time, or Jaye Davidson having a penis, or Rosebud being the name of a sled, right?
Not so much. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you guys. That just wouldn’t be cool. But after laying it all out for Chris, his response was: “That’s not a twist. That’s a plot point.” And he’s right — it’s not much of a twist. It’s barely even a curve. It’s more likely that Sony didn’t want to be in the awkward position of promoting a film that features violence against women as a source of thrills, given the release this week of a video clip showing Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in the face in an elevator. (Not that the studio’s possible concern over bad PR mattered: “No Good Deed” opened at No. 1 at the box office this weekend with $24.3 million.)
Still, director Sam Miller’s film is uncomfortable to watch (for a number of reasons), which would have been true regardless of timing. The blending of sex and violence is by no means a new phenomenon. The second a pretty, young woman strips down and steps into the shower in a horror movie, you know she’s a goner. But “No Good Deed” practically fetishizes the brutality Idris Elba’s character inflicts on a number of women. It sexualizes him as a killing machine. It wants us to salivate over him and tremble before him simultaneously.
Because, let’s face it: He’s Idris Elba.
Miller, working from a script by Aimee Lagos, paints Elba’s Colin Evans as a charismatic figure. He’s a cunning seducer — although “malignant narcissist” is the official psychological label placed on the character. Colin is handsome and muscular, charming and quick-witted — but he’s also a clever and has a taste for pain, which makes him extremely dangerous. His victims and potential victims (the ones we see on screen, at least) are all gorgeous, too: beautiful women with a variety of pleasing figures but a similar preference for tight, suggestive clothing. Flirting often precedes the fury. Again, we’re meant to be titllated and aghast in a single breath.
In execution, though, “No Good Deed” is a rather standard home-invasion thriller. It telegraphs its scares and signals how we’re supposed to feel through a smothering, intrusive score and rather obvious sound design (a thunderstorm, a car alarm, a window breaking). While it’s often more stomach-turning that frightening, it also might not be crazy enough. Sure, some of the characters make incredibly stupid choices, but full-blown Tyler Perry-style wackiness would have been welcome. Instead, the results are often just boring, despite the best efforts of overqualified stars Elba and Taraji P. Henson.
At the film’s start, Colin is on the verge of being paroled from a Tennessee prison after serving five years for manslaughter. We’re told in a lengthy and expository TV news voiceover that he’d also been the suspect in the disappearances of five women, although he’d never been charged. On the way back to prison after his hearing, Colin wipes out his guards and escapes. His destination is Atlanta, where he pays a surprise visit to his ex-fiancee (Kate del Castillo) and learns that she’s been involved with someone else in his absence. The beating he gives her is savage and bloody, complete with an audible neck snap. “No Good Deed” returns to this moment in repeated flashbacks, as if we needed a reminder of the rage that lurks within him.
After crashing a stolen truck into a tree during a thunderstorm and suffering a bad cut on his forehead, Colin knocks on the door of a beautiful home in an affluent suburb, seeking help. Henson’s Terri answers. Although she’s busy with the bedtime routine for her young daughter and infant son, she opens the door and graciously agrees to let him use her phone. Then she does something mind-blowingly idiotic, especially given that her husband (Henry Simmons) is out of town for the weekend on a golf trip: She invites this stranger inside. Ostensibly, she’s just a kindhearted woman, but she’s also been feeling lonely and unloved lately. Plus, as we mentioned earlier: He’s Idris Elba.
And so Terri treats Colin’s cut. She gives him a dry shirt. She makes him tea. She listens to the sad tale of his broken engagement. When her sexually aggressive best friend (Leslie Bibb) comes over with a bottle of wine for a much-needed girls’ night, she pours him a glass. She should know better and protect herself, especially since she was a prosecutor specializing in crimes against women before choosing to be a stay-at-home mother. In no time, Colin will show her his true colors and make her realize the enormous mistake she made by tormenting her and endangering her children (which is also difficult to watch).
At its most sickening, “No Good Deed” features Colin forcing Terri into the shower with him, and then hovering over her, wet and naked, as he steps back into his jeans and makes her change clothes, too. He is a specimen to behold — hulking and chiseled — but the sexually predatory nature of this act is inescapable.
“No Good Deed” ultimately tries to be an inspiring movie about a woman rediscovering her power and protecting her family, but by then it’s too late. The damage already has been done.