A young couple fall afoul of some nasty thugs in “Good People,” an attempt at a modern noir that works its way up to a pretty exciting, if absurd, climax but mostly bides time until then. The English-language debut of Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz, adapted by Kelly Masterson from a novel by Markus Sakey, isn’t bad enough to hate but also not good enough to praise.
James Franco, looking a mite sleepy, and Kate Hudson, trying to be plausibly dramatic, play Tom and Anna Reed, Americans who have immigrated to England when their financial woes seem to have found a solution in Tom’s inheriting a house there. Unfortunately, the place is pretty much a shambles, so they have to resort to living in a run-down row home while Tom renovates it. To make ends meet, they take in a tenant downstairs whose main characteristic seems to be playing music at an unconscionably loud volume.
The guy’s also a drug addict involved in some very nefarious business. As we see in the film’s prologue, he was part of a gang headed by Jack (Sam Spruell), an exceptionally vicious gangster, that robbed a French drug kingpin who calls himself Khan (Omar Sy) of a case of liquid heroin and a bag containing a quarter million pounds in cash. But Ben betrayed his colleagues in crime and left Jack’s brother dead in the process, stashing the loot and the drugs in the crawlspace above his dingy apartment’s ceiling. Then he ODs.
It’s Tom and Anna who find the body, and before calling the police they search the place, finding the money and deciding not to tell the detective assigned to the case, John Halden (Tom Wilkerson), about it. Though Anna’s more than a little uneasy over the idea, Tom persuades her that they should keep the cash and only use as much of it as they must to stay afloat until they can be sure no one is looking for it. The fact that they begin paying of their debts attracts the attention of Halden, who, as it turns out, has a personal interest in bringing down Jack. But more importantly, Jack shows up, reclaiming the drugs that Tom had left behind and becoming convinced that the couple had pilfered the money. And he’s willing to resort to very violent means to retrieve it.
“Good People” eventually winds up in a showdown at the ramshackle house Tom inherited. There all the main characters—as well as quite a few peripheral ones—assemble and play things out. The sequence is intended, one supposes, as a sort of “Straw Dogs” clone, in which knives, clubs and building implements—including the almost obligatory nail gun—are prominently employed and plenty of blood is spilled. But though Genz and editor Paul Tothill manage to choreograph it all in a fashion that keeps the people and the succession of one-on-one encounters clear, the result is rather like the cinematic equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine (or one of those scenes in a kung-fu movie in which each one of an army of villains waits for the hero to dispatch the guy who came before him before attacking): each part of a complicated series of violent acts follows upon what had happened immediately before, until all those who should die have and a few characters are left standing, or rather stumbling to safety. Before it’s all over you might want to shout, “Oh, come on, guvner,” at the screen, when yet another presumably dead figure suddenly reappears alive and well to cause further trouble.
Still, it provides a reasonably tense conclusion to what has been until then a mostly sedate, tepid build-up to it, only occasionally interrupted by sudden bursts of psychotic rage from Jack, whom Spruell plays with a satisfying menacing air. By contrast Hudson and especially Franco come across as a mite bored, and so does the usually reliable Wilkinson, who hasn’t much to do but look haggard. (A subplot about crooked cops goes nowhere.) Sy seems more concerned with enunciating his English dialogue properly and looking suave than in acting, and Anna Friel, as a friend of Anna’s who becomes a pawn in Jack’s plans along with her baby (yes, the picture also shamelessly puts an infant in jeopardy), has little to do. Technically the picture has been given a glum, green-gray look, courtesy of cinematographer Jorgen Johansson, which might suit the material but doesn’t make watching any more pleasurable.
Ultimately Genz’s movie tells us, as many others have, that sometimes essentially good people do dumb things—like keeping money that they find. (Presumably the Reeds have never seen “A Simple Plan,” or the other flicks that have shown how bad an idea that is.) Genz’s European work has shown that he’s a pretty good director, and while this film isn’t really dumb, it’s hardly an outstanding English debut, about the quality of a picture you wouldn’t mind encountering on cable. You might want to wait until it shows up there.