When it comes to the home-invasion thriller, there are two types of villains we encounter time and again. There’s the textbook sadist, the guy who infiltrates a home by force and clings to anonymity by wearing a mask and rarely speaking (think The Strangers or The Purge). But then there’s the second archetype — the charmer, a person who weasels his way into your home by flashing a smile and earning your trust. This character is a throwback to some of cinema’s first home-invasion antagonists, people like Humphrey Bogart in The Desperate Hours (1955) or Frank Sinatra in Suddenly (1954). These are the types of characters who will tip their hat to a lady even while they’re hogtieing her husband. I’ll give you one guess as to which type Idris Elba plays in No Good Deed. [Hint: Movie studios tend to frown upon obscuring the face of one of People magazine’s sexiest men alive behind a mask.]
So even before the movie begins, we have this hurdle of disbelief to overcome. Why would someone as handsome and sophisticated as Idris Elba even need to invade somebody’s home? Chances are pretty good that if he just knocked on a random door, the homeowner would open it, squeal with delight, and invite the guy in for a beer, right?
Well, director Sam Miller (who’s mostly know for overseeing a couple episodes of the Elba-driven TV show Luther) and screenwriter Aimee Lagos (who’s mostly known for spelling her name with two E’s) must’ve had the same notion. That’s why they spend the entire first act of the movie reinforcing the fact that Colin Evans (Elba’s character) is not a good guy no matter how charming he is. During the opening credits, a news reporter describes Colin, who is suspected of murdering five women, as “one of the most feared men in the annals of state history.” Then, the film cuts to Colin’s parole hearing. He’s seconds away from smiling and aww-shucksing his way to freedom, when one of the board members interrupts the proceedings to tell everyone that no matter how charming he appears, Colin is a malignant narcissist who will “lose control if he’s rejected or things don’t go his way.”
Just as you’re about to throw your hands up in the air and say, “I get it, enough already,” the movie throws in a couple extra reminders of Colin’s evil nature — presumably for latecomers and folks who missed the first 20 minutes of the film while they were getting popcorn refills. Immediately after his failed parole hearing, Colin escapes by shooting a kindly old security guard, then flees to his girlfriend’s house and brutally murders her. We’ll see this murder of the girlfriend in flashback two more times throughout the movie, just in case you weren’t paying attention.
After the murders, Colin crashes his car and seeks shelter at the home of Terri (Taraji P. Henson). Terri is more than willing to take in a handsome stranger, as she’s been feeling a bit out of sorts because her husband, who’s out of town, is distant and she’s packed on 10 pounds of post-pregnancy weight. Terri invites Colin in to wait for a tow truck, then she quickly runs to the bathroom to fix her hair. Twice. Clearly, Terri didn’t watch the first act of her own film, otherwise she’d know that even though he’s charming, this guy is baaaaaad news.
The two hit it off. They drink tea, and Terri ogles Colin like a piece of meat while he’s changing into a clean shirt. It’s all going swimmingly, in fact, until Terri’s best friend, Meg (Leslie Bibb), arrives for a girl’s night. Meg gets suspicious about Colin’s motives. That’s when everything goes to pot. Colin’s charming side turns into his sadistic side once more, and the movie quickly devolves into a standard man-chases-lady-around-with-a-weapon thriller.
It’s disappointing because there are glimmers of what could have been a much smarter, much more empowering movie buried beneath all this muck. Exhibit A: We learn that Terri used to be a prosecutor specializing in domestic violence cases. Exhibit B: During a dreadful scene where Colin forces her to get dressed in front of him, Terri unleashes a line that most of the audience was already thinking: “I’m getting sick and tired of this sadistic bullshit!” But those glimmers are few and far between in this tired genre exercise.
Oh, and then there’s the ending. Earlier this week, the studio behind No Good Deed yanked all of its advanced screenings for critics, citing that they didn’t want anyone to spoil the film’s final twist for viewers. Well, I’m not going to spoil anything, but suffice it to say I was expecting to get Keyser Söze, and I got low-rent M. Night Shyamalan instead. Or maybe, just maybe the joke’s on me, and the real twist is that No Good Deed is a comedy disguised as a home-invasion thriller. Now that would be a secret worth protecting.