No Good Deed

September 12, 2014
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Review by Thomas Banks

  • No Good Deed is a genre piece pleasantly confident within its limitations. Its direction, script and acting all equally disclose an unimaginative professionalism that bears comparison to any number of films of a similar mold. While it must be admitted that the break-in suspense flick is hardly a genre with many permanent classics (the Audrey Hepburn vehicle Wait until Dark being a noteworthy exception), in No Good Deed most of the virtues and relatively few vices of the species can, in the space of 85 minutes, be enjoyed or forgiven, and forgotten in half as long again. Until, of course, we see this familiar story’s next reiteration.

    The movie begins with narcissistic killer Colin Evans (Idris Elba) attending a parole hearing whose panel denies him early release. Within a few minutes of this setback, Evans has liberated himself and shot a couple of prison guards with such sweatless ease that one is tempted to wonder hopefully if the militarization of America’s police forces has truly proceeded quite so far as one feared. Whatever the actual case may be, No Good Deed conforms to the principles of film suspense in presenting an American suburbia where threatened citizens can call 911 and find themselves on indefinite hold while psychotic killers one room away are taking inventory of all available blunt instruments. And you can be sure that when the cavalry does finally arrive, it will either be too late or there will be no need for it.

    Within these stated confines, No Good Deed is a far sight better than no good. Idris Elba makes the most of a character type whom the past two decades’ worth of cinematic grotesquery has robbed of whatever fascination it previously might have held. No matter how gifted the actor who portrays him- whether Hopkins in the Lecter films or Nicholson in The Shining- it is nearly impossible to set around an insane murderer an aura of human interest that exists apart from the fear he provokes. Divorced from his singular culinary proclivities, Hannibal Lecter is really just a well-traveled pedant. Norman Bates, saddled with less problematic maternal baggage, becomes a more than ordinarily prosaic motel owner. Evil is merely absence of the good, as St. Augustine observed. The greater the extent of this privation, the less recognizably human substance remains as food for drama. This difficulty does much to explain the fact that the closer the plot of a horror flick cleaves to Grand-Guignol standards of brutality, the farther it drifts from concentration on motive and character.

    Be that as it may, Elba invests his part with all his available physical advantages; his monolithic features, noticeable height, and ability to season even seemingly mild lines with a hint of malevolence combine to make him almost palpably threatening. The central action of the plot begins to unfold when Evans’ car spins off the road during a storm and he suffers a few minor injuries. Making his way to the nearest house, which naturally is located in an isolated woodland, he applies for help from his soon-to-be-quarry, a stay-at-home mom named Terri (Taraji P. Henson) whose husband is on vacation. Not one to pass by an opportunity, Evans charms his way into the house with predictable ease. Here it should be admitted that even if the most important elements in the plot turn on familiar hinges, and although more than a few of the “scare” moments are almost embarrassingly old hat (yes, we are treated to that moment when we think the killer is dead, when he isn’t) the fabric of the picture is never so flimsy that it can only be sustained by the opportune stupidity of the soon-to-be victims. Director Sam Miller is never so desperate as to have any expendable supporting character check on a noise in the basement. This is refreshing, and deserves commendation.

    In fact, the only serious misstep in the film comes in its “surprise” final act, where certain of our previously established judgments are gratuitously, if not unbelievably, upended for no discernable reason other than to wag a finger at the audience’s intelligence. The twist ending is seldom easy to justify on any aesthetic grounds, unless the permissibility of sensationalism should qualify as such. Here the legacy of the great suspense pictures of the 90’s has produced much sour fruit. Yes, The Usual Suspects and David Fincher’s early work are great, but one does wonder if some moratorium on the last-minute peripeteia would not be justifiable for the space of twenty years or so. We wait and hope.

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    September 12, 2014
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