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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review: No Good Deed

The Movie Report

No Good Deed

***; Rated PG-13
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As the proverbial "they" often say, no good deed goes unpunished, and indeed that will likely be the case with those involved with No Good Deed, at least as far as most of the mainstream critical media is concerned. It's all too easy, to a certain degree understandably so, for the would-be cinema intelligentsia to turn their noses up at a commercial Hollywood thriller, what with their not entirely unearned rep for shamelessly mechanical manipulation and--perhaps most of all--a rapidly diminishing intelligence level that generally isn't very high to begin with. Taken at its barest of bones, the basic scenario of No Good Deed doesn't deviate from the norm; in fact, it perhaps perfectly exemplifies the norm: on a dark and stormy night, a freshly escaped convict makes his way into the home of a housewife who has been left alone with her two very young children.

But one look at the formidable talent involved--veteran BBC television director Sam Miller, his award-anointed Luther star Idris Elba, playing alongside similarly celebrated (yet still too often undersung) actresses Taraji P. Henson and largely mainstream-U.S.-unknown (unjustly so) Kate del Castillo (seriously, people--witness her Emmy-robbed work in 2011's La Reina del Sur (The Queen of the South), hands down one of the great tour de force turns in recent TV history, in any language)--only begins to suggest how No Good Deed pulls off the very good deed of being a better than average entry in the genre. Beyond whatever unique and uncommon virtues they each bring to the proceedings (and more on that later), what strikes from the outset is how Miller and writer Aimee Lagos (who wrote and directed the underseen, underrated 2012 drama 96 Minutes) efficiently and effectively go about the more traditional trappings. Setting the pace is how swiftly establish the characters and their individual situations. After being denied parole, Colin (Elba) escapes while being transported from the courthouse to the clink. While she is an ever-doting stay-at-home mom, former district attorney Terri (Henson) is starting to feel the urge to start working again, much to the chagrin of her husband (Henry Simmons), who is too often away on various business--as he is the fateful night that Colin, after wrecking his car, turns up on Terri's doorstep.

The exposition swiftly taken care of, Miller and Lagos more patiently but steadily build up the tension once the film comes to that central situation of home invasion. Miller certainly isn't above indulging in the well traveled tropes, be it the entrance of an overly perky and flirty best friend (Leslie Bibb, making a commonly thankless role much less so) for Terri or a strategically placed jump scare. After all, to a certain degree the audience not only expects but wants certain beats like the latter, for that's part of the moviegoing fun--and, indeed, Miller pulls off those moments with aplomb without overusing them. But the former point also underscores the fun Miller and Lagos themselves have with thriller conventions, at once going along with them in their own style and then subverting those expectations. That they do so in a manner not immediately apparent in the moment yet always there working under the surface and slowly, surely, logically coming together for a climactic payoff is a measure of how thoughtfully constructed the piece is.

At first one of the quirks of Miller's editing style, never shy to cut to subjective viewpoints, appears to be the opposite, if not completely random. But as what seems to be a standard tormentor/victim dynamic reveals itself to be an even match of wits, that turns out to be an appropriately cinematic visual touch reflecting where the film's thoughtfulness most distinctively arises: within its core cast of characters, which, in another show of efficiency and control, Lagos wisely keeps down to only five principals. Unlike many of its genre ilk, the film's characters are constantly observing, thinking, and processing what is going on and what is presented to them before acting. They may not always get plenty of time to do so nor always make the right decision, but each move everyone makes is less movie world fake/stupid and more plausible, driven logically by, if not always deep thought, then raw gut instinct. The former, of course, more accurately describes Colin's mind manipulation tactics, while the latter most strikingly comes from Terri. Her believably pleasant, benefit-of-the-doubt demeanor in the initial stages doesn't mean her guard is ever completely down. There's none of the typical thriller "heroine" slowness-on-the-uptake here; the moment her curiosity about Colin turns into suspicion, she quickly falls back into defensive mother hen mode.

As written, this lead pair of characters may not exhibit too much dimension beyond the functional archetype of the dangerous villain and plucky heroine, but leave it to polished pros like Henson and Elba to do their job in fleshing out the roles beyond the text. Neither are exactly stretching and/or breaking new ground for themselves here, but casting actors to play to their strengths and use their established personae is a canny move not easily discounted in a genre programmer. Elba's now-famously commanding charisma goes a long way toward explaining how and why he's initially able to slip into situations and minds with minimal hesitation--and when, as one character says early on, the "violence in this man" erupts, it's that formidable presence that makes him all the more scary and intimidating. Yet he's also able to throw in some unexpected notes of vulnerability that give Colin some complexity beyond simple evil, particularly in his relationship with his one-time love (del Castillo, another smart casting choice, making a maximum impression with a minimum of screen time). Henson's natural warmth makes her an instantly engaging heroine, but her equally innate hard core strength that belies the softer, more inviting exterior makes for an even more rootable protagonist.

...or, more accurately, cheerable one, for whatever flourishes of craft they all bring to the project, Miller, Lagos, producer Will Packer, and all involved never lose sight of the whole enterprise's bottom line raison d'être: to be one suspenseful, entertaining ride whose tense turns and thrills are further amplified when shared with an audience. Such an ideally communal cinematic experience is not as easy to come by as one would think--a point proven by, for whatever its familiar paces and unabashedly commercial and crowd-pleasing instincts, just how much fun is ultimately to be had while watching No Good Deed.

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