Film & TV

HBO Max Procedural ‘The Little Things’ is a Draining Ode to Tired ‘90s Cop-Thriller Tropes

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Director: John Lee Hancock
Date: Jan. 29, 2021

R | 2 hour 7 minutes

Operating on an unsustainable platform of cliches, stereotypes and outdated social messaging, filmmaker John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things” fails to stand out in the cop thriller genre despite its big-name cast. 

Set in ‘90s Los Angeles, the film follows Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), a washed up Kern County sheriff’s deputy who finds himself assisting LA cop Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), the lead detective in a haphazard serial killer investigation. 

Deke is a troubled man with a dark past shrouded in mystery, while Baxter is an arrogant young hot-shot looking to make a name for himself. After some fits and starts, their investigation leads to Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a mechanic with long hair, dark eyes and way too much knowledge of the case. (If you must keep reading, now would be a good time to get that yawn out of the way.)

But get this: after Sparma is brought in for questioning, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues between the detectives and their wily prime suspect. That’s exciting, right?

Wrong. Leto (“Suicide Squad,” “Blade Runner 2049”) attempts to avoid “Suicide Squad”-ing the place up, and mostly succeeds. But the film’s grimy composition and muddled plotting squeeze most of the life out of his and Washington’s (“Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” ”Fences”)  highly adequate performances, with a serious case of post-Oscar Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Mr. Robot”) performance finishing the job.

Comparisons to “Zodiac” and “Se7en” are hilarious — calling the film derivative of either is futile when both exist as antidotes to the exact ilk this film finds itself among. No, it’s clear Hancock wants to subvert the tired police procedural format within the film, but demonstrates a total inability to operate within the genre, let alone above it.

Every level of the film’s production from writing to production is competent in a workmanlike way, but none of it is without flaws, and most damningly, none of it is unique or exciting, either. Hancock’s direction is no exception, and his handiwork is most self-evident in the film’s performances.

A collection of noteworthy performances is often the last chance for a movie this flawed to gain some cult appeal down the line, and it might be the area where the film disappoints most.

Washington’s aforementioned acceptable performance can be excused, but casting Malek and Leto and getting nothing memorable — good or bad — is a crime. Leto isn’t bad in his role, and in a better movie might even draw some praise from this reviewer. Still, he should know better than to dial it back when he’s playing a suspected serial killer in a movie which was always destined to be a left-for-dead January release.

Malek is another case entirely. He spends the movie portraying Baxter like a high school varsity linebacker and an insecure 9-year-old who broke a plate, and neither is even salvageable.

Further exhausting is the way Hancock’s script handles Deke and his backstory. Deke is our sympathetic antihero, and when Denzel Washington wants the viewer to sympathize with his character, it’s a fool’s errand to resist. 

This presents an issue because Deke sucks hard. There’s no reckoning for the mistakes of his past, no acknowledgement of his inability to take responsibility for his actions, no added layers of dimension behind the film’s textual characterization.

Now to be fair here, there’s no added depth to any of the film’s characters, but Hancock’s script was first completed in 1993, and his romanticized depiction of unethical cops should have stayed there. 

The public has demonstrated a willingness to allow cops to function as cowboys, spies and soldiers, but a methodical, endless character study of some crooked gunmen with scant moral consideration and little else to offer simply won’t fly.

Given the opportunity to work with three marketable stars and bring his long-unmade script to life, Hancock’s “The Little Things” shoots for a contemplative thriller about the search for truth but lands on HBO Max as a droning soliloquy on why it’s like, really hard to be a cop, guys.

“The Little Things,” rated R, is now in select theaters nationwide and streaming on HBO Max.

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