Denzel Washington's deputy the only arresting part in problematic 'Little Things'

  • A sheriff's deputy (Denzel Washington) investigates a suspect (Jared Leto) in a series of murders in "The Little Things."

    A sheriff's deputy (Denzel Washington) investigates a suspect (Jared Leto) in a series of murders in "The Little Things." Courtesy of Warner Bros.

  • A tightly wound detective (Rami Malek) investigates a serial killer in "The Little Things."

    A tightly wound detective (Rami Malek) investigates a serial killer in "The Little Things." Courtesy of Warner Bros.

  • A detective (Rami Malek), left, partners with an experienced sheriff's deputy (Denzel Washington) on the trail of a serial killer in "The Little Things."

    A detective (Rami Malek), left, partners with an experienced sheriff's deputy (Denzel Washington) on the trail of a serial killer in "The Little Things." Courtesy of Warner Bros.

 
 
Posted1/28/2021 6:00 AM

"The Little Things" - ★ ★

"It's the little things that get you caught," wryly observes Denzel Washington as a county sheriff's deputy named Joe Deacon.

 

That's true, as evidenced by John Lee Hancock's "The Little Things," a serial killer thriller that trips over several of them while on its way to wanting to be a conscience-blanching, morally conflicted, neo-noir police procedural.

Hancock equips his original screenplay not only with the familiar trappings of a classic detective story, but with the cinematic traps of clinker dialogue and incredulous events, plus a caricatured killer who appears to be a recent graduate of the Charles Manson School of Charm.

Deacon, as we quickly learn, once worked for the LAPD as a legendary detective, able to empathize with victims and perpetrators, until one horrific unsolved case became too much. He suffered a heart attack, then opted for the calmer environs of a county sheriff's police department.

So everyone thinks.

He's taken a few days off for a vacation, but it's really an opportunity for him to help hotshot, super-buttoned-up L.A. Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) solve the case of the Freeway Killer, responsible for at least four bloody murders of young women.

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The world-weary Deacon is slouchy, middle-aged and slow.

The younger Baxter dresses in tailored suits and walks as if his spring has been too tightly wound.

They work together well, and not only provide the movie with colorful character contrast, they sidestep the usual conflict between local cops fighting with the Feds for jurisdiction over the case. (Oh, wait. That happens later in the movie.)

Deacon and Baxter very quickly hone in on a disgruntled loner named Albert Sparma as their chief suspect.

Jared Leto plays Sparma as if he just came off the set of the cult drug movie "Reefer Madness." With his glazed eyes spinning beneath a twisted mop of unclean hair, Leto leads the duo on a dog-and-wolf chase, climaxing on an isolated parcel of desert that requires us to believe Baxter completely abandons his meticulous, highly trained nature.

Reportedly, Hancock wrote this screenplay back in the 20th century, which might explain why the story is set in 1990. That way, Hancock didn't need to update his script, and it's much easier to construct the close calls and complications that couldn't happen if people had smartphones at their disposal.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

One of the updates Hancock should have considered: eliminating the wince-inducing hackneyed Hollywood phrases uttered by Sparma.

"This is awesome!" he shouts, using the phrase that finally replaced "Trust me!" as the most overused dialogue phrase in American movies.

Good thing "The Little Things" has a momentous thing going for it in Washington's unfussy, solemn performance as a tortured man haunted by past events that we only gather hints about, mostly in subtle moments of foreshadowing.

Washington's Deacon recalls William Peterson's "Manhunter" FBI agent, who suffers a mental breakdown after becoming too empathetic with serial killer Hannibal Lecter.

Here, Deacon concentrates on the victims, sitting down with a corpse to imagine out loud why she decided to let her killer into her apartment.

It's a tightrope scene, one that could easily come off silly or simply peculiar if performed by a less-talented actor.

Even as the tension and suspense quickly evaporate from the plot, Washington's Deacon keeps us engaged by a character whose name calls to those ordained in the Catholic church.

Visual, written and oral references to angels abound here, but this celestial connection, like many other little things in this movie, remains vague and slightly disappointing.

• • •

Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto

Directed by: John Lee Hancock

Other: A Warner Bros. release in theaters and on HBO Max. Rated R for language, nudity, violence. 127 minutes

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