Five years ago, Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) was an LAPD homicide detective who burned himself out on an uncrackable serial killer case, destroying his marriage and getting himself fired. Now, after a half decade working as a deputy in a small dusty northern California town, he finds himself heading back to Los Angeles on an unrelated case. But upon his return he finds himself swept up into an investigation that recalls the older killings that destroyed his career. Teaming up with the Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), the homicide squad’s new hot shot detective, Deke finds himself slowly sliding back into the single-minded focus on catching the killer that ruined his life the first time. And he could be taking Baxter along with him.
The Little Things is a project that writer/director John Lee Hancock has reportedly been trying to get made for nearly three decades. And boy does the concept show its age here. The film is a definite throwback to the type of 1990s thrillers like Washington’s The Pelican Brief (1993) and Fallen (1998) or the kind that a number of other actors of his caliber would sign up for over the course of the decade. They were the films that would garner some positive reviews, decent box office and then spend several years earning their studios decent rental returns from the nation’s Blockbuster video rental stores. As such, it may be good for a Friday night watch while one is mentally unwinding from the week, an enjoyable little murder mystery that will not tax one’s brain too much at all. But in terms of its story and its ambitions, it is overshadowed by a decade’s worth of films that followed its writing, and now, has not much to offer.
Washington and Malek turn in good performances, shading their characters where they can within the screenplay’s “two cops who don’t see eye-to-eye but are forced to work together” trope. Washington is especially effect with Deacon’s languid persona which he uses to mask his deeper issues still simmering from the open murder case from five years previous. Although Jared Leto, as a suspect in the current murders, is billed third, it is a much smaller part than the screen time that Washington and Malek get. He attempts to make the most of it, especially in a sequence where he is being frilled by the two police detectives. But towards the end the script gives the character a moment that would have been more powerful had it come originally when it was written before David Fincher’s Se7en and not more than two decades after it.
Frustratingly, the film is so conventional as to be unremarkable. The cinematography is flat, functional and without flair. The overall direction is serviceable but after all this time that Hancock has been sitting with this project, one would have expected a bit more than just the pro forma presentation here.
Even the film’s 1990 setting doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose to the story and feels only like a holdover from when Hancock first wrote the piece. Outside not having the plot convenience of cell phones for one sequence, the film does not take advantage of any of the uniqueness of Los Angeles at that time. Nothing about the setting informs the plot, a disappointing omission considering that Hancock’s screenplay for 1997’s Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil made its setting of Savannah, Georgia seem like a character in itself.