When good actors choose mediocre films, the result is "No Good Deed", an overwrought, formulaic 'thriller' starring Idris Elba (TV's "Luther", "Thor") and Taraji P. Henson (TV's "Person of Interest", "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") as the cat and mouse, respectively.
Directed by Sam Miller (lots of British TV credits as actor and director) and written by Aimee Lagos (a relative newcomer), "Deed" is produced by Will Packer ("Ride Along", "Think Like A Man", "About Last Night (2014)"). Packer seems to have modeled his career after Tyler Perry - both work almost exclusively in Atlanta, both produce a lot of films every year and both create films predominantly featuring African Americans.
Packer has produced a large number of Kevin Hart's recent films. Given Hart's recent explosion in popularity, it is understandable the producer would want to latch onto the hot comic. But Packer also makes occasional forays into drama and suspense. His latest effort in this genre is "No Good Deed".
Both Elba and Henson are listed as producers on the film, so I would have to give credit and blame equally to them. Elba is an extremely good, moody actor who has made some great British television. He seems to be having more difficulty breaking into film. Henson has appeared in a large number of films and television series. I suspect that Packer is following the business model used by James Wan ("Insidious", "The Conjuring", "Saw"). Wan makes his films on a very low budget, attracting B level stars by offering them a smaller paycheck but a percentage of the profits. Because his films are always profitable, the B level stars get a lot of money and a boost in their profile. I suspect both Elba and Henson have similar deals for "Deed". And given how little the film cost and how much it has already made - both will probably make a lot of money. This would make their participation in the film a smart business move.
But is it a smart artistic move? "Deed" isn't a very good film. It promises a ‘big’ surprise twist at the end, but this doesn't really redeem all of the formulaic material preceding this moment. And the promised big twist isn’t all that extraordinary.
Colin Evans (Elba), a dangerous convict, escapes and finds his way to Terri's (Henson) home on a rainy night. Colin crashes the vehicle he stole, and uses that as an excuse to get in Terri’s good graces. Terri is having problems with her husband (Henry Simmons) who is away on a golf trip with his dad, so she is home alone with two kids. But she can't leave the man out in the pouring rain with a cut on his forehead. She invites him inside to dry off and get the cut treated while he waits for a tow truck. Meg (Leslie Bibb), Terri's BFF shows up; they planned a girl's night in complete with a bottle of wine and a little rain isn’t going to change their plans. Initially, the two women are very flirty with the tall, dark and handsome stranger, especially Meg, but she pushes Terri to be more flirty as well. But Meg begins to sense something isn’t right and starts to pay attention to the alarms going off in her head. Soon, Terri is fighting Colin, trying to save her children and herself from the sociopath.
"Deed" works about as much as it doesn't. A lengthy prologue establishes Colin's character. We learn why he is in prison and see glimpses of his very violent nature. When he escapes, he immediately heads to his old girlfriend's house. Later, when he shows up at Terri's, we have already seen examples of his violent nature so we know it will only be a matter of time before he shows his true nature again. This is the best part of the film, and comes closest to creating some truly tense moments. Because we know what he is capable of and Terri doesn't, you just sit and wait for the moment, the trigger. Once this happens, the film becomes much more predictable and overwrought. They chase each other through the house, trying to outsmart each other. Thankfully, they let Terri get in some licks, but it isn't enough to overcome the cliched nature of this type of plotting. Colin is basically the maniac in a horror film; every time he seems to be down for the count, he... Well, you know.
Until the moment they become cat and mouse, Elba and Henson each do a fine job with their roles. Elba manages to keep us guessing when Colin will snap and become violent. Hitchcock likes to use this trick. He would show the audience a bomb in a suitcase. Then he shows a little unsuspecting boy picking up the suitcase and carrying it into a crowded pub. Then the boy leaves the suitcase and the audience sits and waits for the bomb to go off in the pub. Because we know what will happen, and the people in the pub don’t, we sit on the edge of our seat waiting for the inevitable.
Henson's Terri seems more natural and normal than some other recent examples of the damsel in distress role. In the few moments she has, she demonstrates her frustration with her husband's lack of affection and his inability to help with their two children. When Colin shows up, there seems to be a little bit of playfulness, maybe she is flirting a little, maybe she is a little desperate for the attention, maybe she is just doing a good deed. Later, she shows she is tough and able to think on her feet.
There is a little bit of an edge, a bit of difference portrayed in Meg's character as well. Bibb begins to get inquisitive and seems to be Terri's co-conspirator, as they both corner the unsuspecting Colin. They have been BFFs for years, so they seem to get along really well. When they are both sitting down, enjoying some wine with their new friend, you definitely get the sense they are looking to give Terri's husband a little payback. These moments are also a bit above average. What doesn’t work as well is that moment when Meg starts to suspect something is wrong. The trigger is not very noticeable to the audience and seems a bit of a cheat.
The film really falls apart, and very quickly, when it reverts to the tried and true formula used so often in these types of films. Terri and Colin chase each other around the house. Then, they move on to another location where they continue to fight. In each location, one of them would seem to have the upper hand, but they each get some licks in.
The final moments are pretty predictable and a short coda seems particularly anti-climatic.
When a film like “No Good Deed” contains moments that work and more narrative cliches that don’t, you begin to suspect the writer, director and cast lucked onto the moments that do work. This realization brings the entire movie down a few notches and makes the surprise of those moments all the less impactful.
“No Good Deed” is really the type of film you would expect to see on Lifetime. If you turned it on, it might draw you in for a few moments but you probably wouldn’t remember it come Monday. The factor that makes this a film worthy of theatrical distribution is the participation of the two leads. While they make the film better to a certain extent, it isn’t enough to make “No Good Deed” worthy of your dollars.