James Franco is so clearly above the material in “Good People” — an unambitious, ultra-conventional block of blahness devoid of pretension or curiosity — that his appearance in this low-budget thriller opposite the professionally flailing Kate Hudson just might be some kind of performance art.
Sure, great actors star in wretched material all the time, but Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz’s English-language debut offers Franco little more than the chance to slum it in some genre schlock with grainy cinematography and a conspicuously limited number of backdrops. At least when the actor-writer-scholar-director played a very loose version of himself in 54 episodes of “General Hospital,” he gave us a whole lotta things to think about, like the nature of celebrity and the prejudices that divide genres and demographics.
A lack of brains afflicts both “Good People” and its central characters, a married American expat couple in a sickly-lit London who suddenly find themselves with a lot more cash than safety or sense.
The impoverished Tom and Anna (Franco and Hudson) find among their mysteriously dead roommate’s possessions a duffel bag stuffed with cash, and despite their misgivings about the money’s origins, they begin spending it almost immediately, especially since their pot of gold seems like it could disappear at any moment when a detective (Tom Wilkinson) starts snooping around.
Of course it’s not the police that Tom and Anna should be worried about, but the rival gangsters who are tracking down the loot: the proceeds from heroin sales, it turns out.
As the title suggests, this adaptation of Marcus Sakey’s novel lands the pair in complex moral situations, particularly since Anna spends the money only on fertility treatments for herself and on a life-saving washing machine for her single-mother bestie (Anna Friel).
Are ill-gotten gains fair game for theft? Can the greater good be served by Robin Hood-ism? To what extent are those who knowingly receive presents implicated in the crime? Can Tom and Anna still call themselves good people?
Regrettably, Genz isn’t interested in exploring any of these questions. The film’s focus turns, instead, to the stylish sadism of two baddies. Jack Witkowski (Sam Spruell) kills a disobedient underling by cramming a pool ball down his throat with a cue stick, while the black Frenchman who calls himself Genghis Khan (a charismatic Omar Sy) chills only with his words and a smile.
The UK’s far stricter gun-control laws have forced these criminals to get creative, resulting in more visceral action-torture scenes refreshingly free of firearms. “Guns are for pussies,” Anna even proclaims at one point, and while the film doesn’t quite bear that statement out, inventive maiming is one of the few areas to which Genz seems to have given rather a lot of thought.
When the vulturish Jack and Khan finally land for a kill, it leads to an impressively choreographed six-person showdown that sustains its jaw-clenching tension for a remarkably long while. Given how roughly sketched out the characters of Tom and Anna are, it’s a credit to this final sequence that the resolution offers some measure of catharsis.
Franco disappears into the set’s shadows and behind the broad strokes in which his character is drawn. Hudson fares somewhat better, her sunny presence a welcome contrast to the grim gray around her.
With no substance and limited style, “Good People” isn’t much more than a snarl, and ultimately a dully moralistic one at that.