“The Little Things” (US Rated R)
B Denzel Washington, Jared Leto, Rami Malek
Where to watch: HBO Max
When you’ve got something boiling in a pot on a stove, generally, at least three things could happen: whatever you’re preparing will eventually end up done to your satisfaction; the liquid will get hot and bubble up and begin to boil over; or, after much initial intensity, all the liquid will evaporate, resulting in what’s left in the pot turning to mush or getting burned and essentially ruined.
The latter, sadly, perfectly sums up the new film “The Little Things”. This crime/thriller starts off like a 100-meter sprinter out the blocks. But this ain’t no sprint race. And as we go along in this marathon, our runner seems to run out of steam, with about a mile or two to go to the finish line.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not with such a promising start. And not with a cast of three Oscar winners! Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) and Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”) each have one, and Denzel Washington (“Glory” and “Training Day”) has two, for goodness’ sake!
So, what happened?
Washington plays Deputy Sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon. He joins forces with Sgt. Jim Baxter (Malek) to search for a serial killer who’s terrorizing Los Angeles. As they track the culprit, Baxter is unaware that the investigation is dredging up echoes of Deke’s past, uncovering disturbing secrets that could threaten more than his case.
Part of the problem is that this could be the plot from any number of police crime thrillers over the past 50 years. Any hundred or 1,000 of them!
For me, it brings back memories of being a kid in the 1980s, when my dad would rent VHS copies of incredibly dark 1970s crime thrillers starring tough guys like Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood. I wasn’t supposed to be watching. But I’d be hiding behind his armchair or across the room sneaking peaks every few minutes, and hearing every minute of the cheesy dialogue.
There were always lots of women getting slaughtered by sickos in those ridiculous flicks. And the cops always seemed to talk and act the exact same way. (Shockingly, we’ve got much less nudity and far less “cussin” today than in those ‘70s and ‘80s films.)
Compared to those pictures, the dialogue in “The Little Things” isn’t corny, and the acting quality is on a much higher plane, but I do feel like I’ve watched this before – or something awfully similar. It’s truly a throwback to a bygone era, and not just because it’s set in 1990. Unfortunately, there is no appreciable update here.
Again, it squanders what could have been something quite special. For at least the first hour, the anticipation of something great is ever present. There’s the ongoing mystery of Washington’s character’s back story, and throughout the film, the actor maintains his usual, solid, dependable, reliable Denzel Washington self.
There’s also the remarkable creepiness of Malek’s police detective character. From beginning to end, you wonder if he truly is one of the good guys, or is that just his face?
And then there’s Leto, whose arrival on the screen promises to ratchet things up several more notches. His chilling performance is arguably the strongest one here. He has clearly put a whole lot of thought into every single aspect of his bizarre character’s life. (Leto is up for the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor this Sunday.)
So, just as you’re on the edge of your seat expecting big things to happen, “The Little Things” begins to run out of fuel, and there’s nothing left in the pot. The only conclusion we can come to is that the draw here all along was solely that we’d get to see three acclaimed actors all together for the first time.
But as any cook in any kitchen can tell you, no matter how good the quality of your ingredients, if you don’t have the right recipe and the right seasonings, the end result won’t necessarily be tasty or satisfying. And worse yet, it may leave an unpleasant aftertaste.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email email@example.com and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.