Like this summer’s “Let’s Be Cops” and 2012’s “The Watch,” two high-concept comedies that lost their allure after Ferguson and the killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, respectively, the home-invasion thriller “No Good Deed” arrives at an inopportune time. Press screenings for the film were canceled at the eleventh hour citing concerns that critics might spoil a major plot twist, but it’s hard not to wonder whether it was the parallels between the thriller and the recently emerged Ray Rice video that made Sony fearful of early reviews.
“No Good Deed” is a film distrustful of men, and for good reason. Its wicked villain is serial killer Colin Evans (Idris Elba), a narcissistic neo-Othello with a vicious need to control every woman around him and an automatic disinterest in any conversation that tries to pass the Bechdel test, since they’re not about him. (He’s so vain, he probably thinks this film is about him.)
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Colin’s quickness to violence renders him a problematic character. He’s a stereotype of the brutally misogynistic black man, a fact that makes both the character and the physical aggression on screen difficult to watch. An early scene in which strangles his ex-girlfriend, then batters her corpse in unwaning anger, borders on sickening.
To the film’s credit, that act doesn’t feel gratuitous but rather part of a larger commentary about domestic violence, as when a prison guard friendly to Colin dismisses the allegations that he has murdered five women by shrugging it off as the convict’s “women trouble.”
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Elba is never quite seductive or menacing enough to make Colin compelling, but “No Good Deed” doesn’t really care about evil, just about battling it. Good Samaritan Terri (Taraji P. Henson) is the sucker who invites an injured Colin into her home, and it’s entirely because of Henson’s innate likability and charm that this film works at all.
A frazzled, unhappy stay-at-home mother of two very young children, Terri is an everywoman who stays with a man she should leave. Her lawyer husband (Henry Simmons), away on an out-of-town trip, isn’t a monster like Colin, but there are clear similarities between Terri and her guest’s other victims.
Sam Miller’s direction is exploitative of both genders: there’s sexual tension as Colin and Terri furtively appreciate each other’s physiques, giving way to the tragedy that he’s primarily attracted to her because she’s lonely and insecure.
Miller directed six episodes of Elba’s lurid BBC detective series “Luther,” but little of that show’s sensationalistic style — or any visual style — is on display here.
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Screenwriter Aimee Lagos knows the way, mapping out a throughline of femme-powerment, but doesn’t have very many landmarks to show us between Points A and B. Much of the scant 84-minute running time is wasted on loud noises: a crash here, a car alarm there. The arrival of Terri’s independent and successful best friend Meg (Leslie Bibb) adroitly turns a break in the tension into one of the film’s darkest scenes by illustrating just how close to the surface Colin’s cruelty and sadism lie. When he guzzles red wine while the women politely sip, you can almost see him turning into a vampire.
As for that mysterious plot twist? If I’m thinking of the right one, it’s nothing that’ll be remembered by the end of this perfectly serviceable thriller. And if nothing else, “No Good Deed” is a great preview for what Henson might bring to a much more interesting role as a hip-hop matriarch in TV’s “Empire.”