Picture this. It’s 1993, and you’re sitting down in the theatre to watch Denzel — the guy who just played (and got snubbed) for the Oscar as Malcom X — and Morgan Freeman hunt down a serial killer somewhere among the crime-ridden streets. The guy who made “Jaws” and “ET” is directing, and as opening credits roll — you firmly believe this will be the best movie of the year.
Things couldn’t get much better, right?
Wrong. Because it’s actually 2021, we’re 11 months into a global pandemic, and once again you’re sitting down on the couch and firing up HBO Max to watch a release from your home.
Trapped in the past. This is exactly how I felt as I turned on “The Little Things” Monday night.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Founder”) with a script that he himself wrote in the early 1990s and reportedly had Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and others attached to direct at various points, “The Little Things” stars Denzel Washington (“Remember The Titans”) and Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) as Joe “Deke” Deacon and Jim Baxter, two police officers tracking the trail of a serial killer on the loose in 1990 Los Angeles. After a visit into the city to collect evidence from a recent murder in his own neighboring territory of Kern County, Deacon learns of the gristly spree and follows new lead detective Baxter to a gruesome crime scene — where the pair discovers another new victim, and Joe soon recognizes similarities between this woman and a murder case he was unable to solve during his own time as a lead LA detective.
Unable to cope with his previous failure to catch the killer and hungry to solve out the crime, Joe decides to take a “vacation” from his duties up north and join Baxter in his search — the duo soon narrowing on Albert Sparma, played by Oscar-winner Jared Leto (“Requiem For A Dream”), as a local maintenance man whose obsession with crime feels too apparent to let slip.
From there the movie devolves into all of the neo-noir Los Angeles eeriness we expected when the movie was first announced — but sadly for us fans, have already seen time and time again.
Aptly put, “The Little Things” is the most boilerplate murder mystery I’ve ever seen — simply following along the slowly-burned path that previous genre entries like David Fincher’s “Se7en” perfected just a few years after it was written and television entries like “True Detective” and “Broadchurch” provided far more justice in longer episodic forms than what can be found here.
From the “I’m a different kind of cop” clichés in Deacon’s gruff old deputy demeanor to the arrogant, “I can solve anything” attitude that spells trouble for Baxter from the moment he steps on screen, it’s clear that this movie has been dusted off the shelves and plopped into our accounts to make up for what was lost when Denzel regrettably turned down a lead role in Fincher’s 1995 classic — a decision he’s claimed to be one of the worst of his career, and a choice to return to the genre that feels like it would have been all the more better had he been able to hop in a time machine and make himself 30 years younger again.
Everything in this script — ranging from the motivations and patterns of the unknown killer, brooding atmosphere, frequent transitions between sweaty urban streets and dusty highway landscapes, and gradual insanity that envelops one of our protagonists — is a rinse and repeat that we’ve seen a thousand times up to this point, all leading towards a final 20 minutes that’s somehow both unfulfilling to what little story or tonal differences do manage to get introduced and could likely be predicted if you’ve ever watched anything even remotely similar in the past.
There are virtually no fun twists to be found anywhere within the film’s far-too-long 127-minute runtime, and once the credits finally rolled, I was stuck wondering why I had stayed up far past my normal bedtime to watch something I had already seen and enjoyed years earlier.
Even with the struggles of the screenplay, the top billing and performances of three former Oscar-winners feels like nothing to stick up my nose about – yet still largely failed to capture any genuine attention on my behalf. Denzel — always good, more often amazing — feels stuck between two different roles here – at once a depressed old man stuck reflecting upon what happened years ago that ruined both his career and family, at the same time a quietly whispered about, vengeful investigator who will stop at nothing to bring the killer to justice.
It’s not that he doesn’t show up at all, with a few fleeting moments during interactions with suspects in which he switches from charismatic to menacing as only he can masterfully do, but rather just feels tired among the countless other times we’ve seen him do it before — a character with little writing to chew on and larger purpose among the plot holes completely up in the air until the suddenly predictable reveal inevitably comes. Despite playing one of the best fictional police officers of all time in “Training Day”, King Kong definitely has shit on him here.
In the same token, Malek — whose critical acclaim is now being put to the test as a genuine leading man — similarly feels stuck between multiple personalities in his role as Baxter, his vampiric looks and unsettling mannerisms not quite fitting the mold of a cocky “tough guy” that I think would’ve made what happens far more effective. The energy he provided felt off the entire time, and his wooden approach made the dynamic between the pair boring as a result.
Surprisingly, the lone bright spot for me came in Leto’s work as Sparma – upping the campiness that he tried — and largely failed — to bring to his role as the Joker in “Suicide Squad” a few years ago and serving as a fun-ish bright spot once he makes his introduction. One scene in particular, a taunting of Deacon and Baxter during a tense exchange in the interrogation room, is a lone entertaining moment to savor, and knowing Leto’s method-style approach was likely a full immersion into the genuinely creepy fellow we continue to follow for the rest of the movie.
With a tired script that even arguably the greatest actor of all time barely holds together, “The Little Things” feels right at home as a VOD dump during the worst part of the movie calendar — disappointing not just because the story is uninteresting, but also because it doesn’t offer anything new despite its pedigree. Save your time and skip it, it feels like everyone involved did.
Final Grade: C-