FRESH POUR: No Good Deed (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

No_Good_Deed_2014_movie_posterNo Good Deed
Dir. Sam Miller
Screen Gems

The home invasion thriller is one of the most intrinsically tepid of film premises – in the vast pantheon of horror movies, it’s really tough to make a good one without needing to subvert some stuff (e.g. Home Alone, last year’s You’re Next). Even worse is the domestic home-invasion thriller, which eschews creepy slasher grotesqueries for what amounts to a slightly more physical relationship drama. No Good Deed, unfortunately, is the latter; imagine Obsessed, but even LESS interesting, and you’ve got No Good Deed. Basically, a handsome, manipulative criminal named Colin (Idris Elba) escapes from prison after his parole is rejected, whose search to find the man who slept with his girlfriend (whom he murders shortly after escaping) while he was away leads him to the house of new mom Terri (Taraji P. Henson). You know what happens next.

It’s a shame to see Elba and Henson, two actors I highly respect, in such a hokey, slight home-invasion thriller that’s equal parts tedious and racially problematic. Elba’s ‘malignant narcissist’ criminal Colin is a charming presence, to be sure, but he also fits snugly into the stereotypes of the aggressive, angry black criminal and jealous, abusive black boyfriend. The aforementioned parole scene threatens to introduce some interesting ideas about the way the prison system treats African-American men; when a white parole officer smugly rejects Elba’s appeal to the board based on some pretty nasty assumptions written up in the case of his murder, I hoped that would play into Elba’s frustration at being unable to escape the kind of man he was before entering prison. Even after he breaks out and sees his ex-girlfriend, confronting her about their past and wanting to patch up, there’s a tense discomfort to the domestic-abuse undertones, as she initially plays along simply so she can stay safe. Unfortunately, by the time Elba shows his hand to Henson’s character by the last act of the film, the parole officer is proven right – Elba IS just a one-note villain with a wry smile.

What’s more, the only other major black male character in the film is revealed to be a pathetic adulterer in the ‘twist’ that the studio claimed was so outrageous they couldn’t screen it for critics ahead of time. That’s no twist, Sony – just a predictable, stale third act plot development I saw coming twenty minutes in. It’s not a good day for black maleness in No Good Deed, to be sure. The film wallpapers over that by making it essentially a girl-power movie; Henson plays her character with a reserved strength and resolve, which is refreshing, but I can’t help but feel uncomfortable that Henson is visibly offended when Elba says he won’t rape her. “Fuck you,” she says to him. What the hell?

On top of its icky politics, it’s just a terrible thriller, too. The film takes forever to get to the meat-and-potatoes of Elba’s and Henson’s cat and mouse game, and once it arrives it’s just scene after scene of Henson outsmarting Elba and making a break for it, only to be caught again. Nothing happens that we haven’t seen before in other, better thrillers, and you can see our leads admirably straining to layer their terrible, one-note characterizations. Luther director Sam Miller doesn’t provide any visual flair beyond the errant silhouette of Elba, filming the proceedings in a largely perfunctory matter. The whole thing reeks of a paycheck, which is unsurprising but lamentable. It’s admirable that such a low-budget movie is making some decent bank in the box office (it’s set for a $25 million weekend at #1), but I wish that success story was happening to a better movie. I guess No Good Deed really does go unpunished.

As honestly thrilled as I am to see more representation for black lead characters in film, I wish it was in works that had more respect for them, and didn’t cater to the most pernicious stereotypes for the sake of some unearned, Obsessed-style ‘fuck yeah’ catharsis when Henson finally gets to stand up to the men that use and abuse her. Sure, that kind of crowd-pleasing is what the home-invasion thriller is for, but No Good Deed squanders some interesting potential (and the chance to actually talk about black men in prison/the sidelining of working moms/the inescapability of domestic abuse) for the sake of lowest common denominator, Dateline-level slapfighting, the audience cheering in rapturous glee when someone gets a vase broken over their head. In the end, Elba and Henson get to eat and pay their mortgages, and I’m really glad for them; that’s about the most I can really say about this film.

Clint’s Verdict: Skip It!

No Good Deed Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink any time Idris Elba is struck or stabbed or otherwise injured
2) Drink every time you hear a prominent thunder strike
3) Drink whenever a phone is seen or used
Finish Your Drink When (SPOILERS):
Taraji P. Henson says, “Your fucking girlfriend’s dead, Jeffrey!”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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