No Good Deed promises little, but, to its credit, it largely lives up to that promise. You don’t need to lower your expectations for the film; it lowers them for you, roundly but quietly apologizing at every turn for not being better than it is. Frankly, No Good Deed’s abashed tone is unnecessary, because its biggest crime is being an adequately made, wholly by-the-numbers thriller. It will not dazzle you. It will not make you white knuckle your seat. It won’t even bother trying to show you anything new. It’s as boilerplate an effort as they come.
But it’s briskly paced, moving along with an admirable vigor in spite of its internal chagrin, and it focuses pretty much solely on its talented leads, Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson. It’s a suitable movie-going experience, far removed from the year’s worst offerings (hello, Winter’s Tale), though nobody in their right mind will argue over its relative quality. It’s fine. If there’s anything truly wrong with the film, it’s ambition. No Good Deed aspires to be little more than a hamburger cooked to medium perfection, sans toppings and served on a Wonder Bread bun. You won’t complain about eating it, but with every bite you’ll wish to God for a fried egg, a piece of bacon, a slice of Gruyere.
in fairness, Elba and Henson come close to giving the film that necessary, extra bit of punch. Respectively, they play Colin, a charming psychopath escaped from the U.S. prison system after being denied parole and Terri, once a strong, self-empowered DA and now an underappreciated housewife minding the children while her curt, douchey husband (Henry Simmons) ducks his husbandly duties. Colin’s flight from the clink puts him squarely on a collision course with Terri, just as a major storm strikes the area and she’s left alone at home with the kids. Quite the coincidence, isn’t it?
Maybe. Screen Gems cancelled press screenings last week, to the feigned outrage of all, out of fear of ruining No Good Deed’s climactic plot twist. Truthfully, you can figure it out if you’ve seen the trailer, so their nerves appear to be unfounded. (You can also figure it out if you’ve ever watched a movie, or if you just have eyes and ears.) But no reasonable person would ever walk into a film like this—a film that’s just a bit too professional grade to be a Lifetime production but which often looks, sounds, and feels like one anyways—expecting to be blown away by invention or clever reveals. People pay to see this kind of junk because it’s satisfying in the way candy is satisfying, and because they recognize the stars.
So bully for Elba and for Henson, because No Good Deed rests entirely on their shoulders. Credit where due: they handle the burden without complaining, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they’re both quite good. Elba menaces and lurches, turning Colin’s narcissistic misogyny into creepy sex appeal, while Henson summons her inner badass to protect herself and her family from her tormentor’s brutal neuroses. The trick, of course, is that we know that Elba can portray charismatic monsters, and we know that Henson can play self-empowered women in her sleep. If director Sam Miller (who has worked with Elba before on BBC’s Luther) had coaxed bad performances from the duo, that might have proven the greatest “twist” of all.
There’s a popular theory that Screen Gems actually held the film in reserve because of Ray Rice; No Good Deed features domestic violence and a black male villain, and the argument is one of poor timing. If this is true, one wonders why the studio didn’t bump its release date back by weeks or months (as with 2013’s Gangster Squad), or try softening its content somehow (though it’s so tame that there’s not much to soften). They simply knew, or believed, that they had a stinker on their hands, but if No Good Deed isn’t particularly good, it’s not particularly bad, either, and is at least refreshing in its desire to give the home invasion movie a change in perspective. How many of these movies have we seen featuring all-white casts? How soon will it be before we see another like this, in which the trope is predominantly black? Maybe sooner than you think—money talks and to date, this has become a minor hit—but hopefully someone will give more of a damn about story and craft next time.
Director: Sam Miller
Writer: Aimée Lagos
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Idris Elba, Henry Simmons, Leslie Bibb
Release Date: Sept. 12th, 2014
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and TV on the web since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter.