Married Women Over 30, here’s a pitch for a movie: My Dinner With Idris. You never thought it would happen to you, but one rainy night when your handsome and successful but distracted husband who doesn’t appreciate you is out of town, Idris Elba (The Wire, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) rings the doorbell of your spacious, tastefully furnished five-bedroom colonial. His rain-soaked clothes cling to his athletic frame as he apologizes for interrupting your evening, looking sexily embarrassed as he confesses he’s just totaled his car on the winding, leafy road that passes the large, semi-secluded, well-landscaped lot that affords you a measure of privacy. He wouldn’t dream of intruding while you’re feeding your adorable kids; he only wants to use your phone and then wait out in the monsoon for the tow truck.
Once you were a tough prosecutor who — as you will shortly explain to sexy, wet Idris Elba (Luther, Prometheus) — specialized in violence-against-women cases, before you gave it up to raise your handsome-and-successful-but-distracted husband’s children. So you’re no sap. But Idris has a sexy cut on his forehead that clearly requires your tender ministrations, and it’s so wet outside. You beat back the big-city survival instincts you developed while in law school and invite him in. He listens attentively as you share a bottle of red wine, lamenting that your husband (handsome, successful) bought when he used to see you as more independent, back before the kids. And also, was that weird when your skinny white friend Meg stopped by in the middle of her jog earlier to parade around in front of your husband in just a sports bra? Because that seemed a little weird.
You would see this movie, would you not? Good. I thought so. Now: What if we make Idris Elba (Thor, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) an escaped serial killer in this scenario? Not a suspected serial killer or something hot like that, but a guy we have actually seen strangle a woman and then bludgeon her with a telephone that rings upon impact with her skull, a few minutes before he crashes his car in front of your house. Still in?
To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to ogle Idris Elba (Thor: The Dark World, 28 Weeks Later) when he takes his shirt off but also to cheer when a stay-at-home mom brains him with a fire extinguisher and stabs him with her keys. At least, that seems to be the marketing psychology behind No Good Deed, a deeply stupid thriller that features the ladykiller as, well, a murderer of women, albeit one prepared to diversify into killing men when necessary. Elba is credited as an executive producer, as is Taraji P. Henson, who plays Terri, the good woman whom he menaces after spending a very long time getting to know her. Which means it’s fair to hold Elba and Henson both at least partially responsible for the insulting wish-fulfillment condescension that permeates this film, which was also, somewhat incredibly, written by a woman. Its white screenwriter and director, and apparently its black stars, must think their audience very dumb indeed. Even beyond Aimee Lagos’s lazy script, the casting (Terri’s sports bra–wearing friend, who assures her she still looks great, weighs maybe 95 pounds) and set decorating (which gives Terri a medicine cabinet full of weight-loss pills) suggest a cynical attempt to customize a movie for Black Women Who Are Afraid Their Husbands Might Have a Fling With a Skinny, Younger White Lady.
Screen Gems, the studio that previously pushed back No Good Deed’s release on three separate occasions, canceled all press screenings for critics on the grounds of protecting its diabolically cunning plot twist. That Elba’s character, Colin Evans, is a killer is not the twist. We’re told that much in the opening TV news bulletin, which takes a comically long time to give us Colin’s backstory, referring to him as “one of the most wanted men in state history,” which, duh, and then again, less than a minute later, as “one of the most dangerous men in the annals of state history.”
Other than demonstrating that Lagos has never actually watched television, that scene turns out to be completely superfluous — because its litany of unspeakable things We Need to Tell You About Colin (he was a suspect in the disappearance of several women, but actually convicted of killing a man in a bar fight) is helpfully repeated in full in the next scene, Colin’s parole hearing, where one member of the board compares Colin to that famous bar-fight champion, Jeffrey Dahmer.
Unusually friendly to latecomers, No Good Deed actually gets going a couple of scenes later when Colin, having been denied parole, busts out of custody with less difficulty than most of us have getting through the self-checkout line. (The film runs a svelte 84 minutes, including all the fake beginnings and the end credits.) Colin proceeds immediately to the home of the ex-girlfriend he sent letters to from prison, which seems like the first place the cops would look for him, but whatever. After catching up on his woman-murdering, he heads over to the luxe Taraji P. Henson residence for a long (even though it’s short) evening of ladykilling foreplay.
We love thrillers — even inept, boring ones like No Good Deed — for the way they temporarily scramble our moral compasses, making us root for things to happen that we would never wish to see made manifest were we not under the influence of a movie. And as clumsy and unimaginative as it is, No Good Deed reaches those intoxicating heights of incrimination for about 90 seconds: After Colin has abducted Terri and her children in her car, she manages to signal a passing police cruiser for help. The cop who pulls them over is white and green — he looks 22 years old, a shaky rookie who might panic and shoot wildly into the car where a killer is hiding behind Terri’s two babies. Suddenly Terri wants nothing more in the world than for the cop to go away and leave her to fend for herself with the murderer. Nowhere else does director Sam Miller achieve anything like this fine hum of suspense.
That’s because suspense takes time and patience, and this is the kind of movie that includes flashbacks to events that happened 10 minutes ago. Specifically, it cuts to a shot of Colin caving his ex’s head as he tells Terri that the last woman in his life cheated on him. Colin is such a smooth talker that Miller — who previously helmed several episodes of Luther, Elba’s British cop show — must periodically zoom in on the back of his head and distort the voice of whoever is speaking to him on the soundtrack, just to remind us: this guy? Dashing dude in the tight shirt? He’s the killer, remember? Do not wish for Terri to have sex with him!
“I’ll bet you were a force to be reckoned with,” Colin tells Terri upon learning of her law-enforcement background.
“That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me in a long time,” she coos.
That’s what No Good Deed feels like: a softcore skin flick that, because it’s rated PG-13, features no adults-only nudity or sex; just kid-friendly scenes of women being implicitly threatened with rape and explicitly killed with telephones and shovels. If Elba is tired of being seen as an object of near-universal lust, he could hardly have picked a better exit strategy than this.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 15, 2014