John Lee Hancock’s crime thriller, The Little Things, had been buried for some time before the writer/director decided to dig it up again. Put down on paper after he finished A Perfect World for Clint Eastwood, it had crossed many desks before ending back on his own. Now some 30-years since its inception, and it’s finally been made a reality. All the best ingredients are there, led by (count them) three Oscar winners, the classic friction between the seasoned cop and the up-and-comer, and the ten shades of creepy suspect they’re both drawn towards. The irony here is that it’s these little things that make up what quickly becomes an absolute mess of a murder mystery.
Denzel plays Deacon, the worn-down lawman still rattled by a case he never cracked but left him broken in all the years that followed. He’s got all the ideal traits for a fallen hero; overlooked in promotion but not in reputation, smarter than every other badge in the room, and immediately likeable because he feeds the local stray dog. Good guys don’t get much better, and Washington isn’t giving any more than is required to sell it. This is the sort of gig he can do standing on his head, leaving the heavy lifting to Rami Malek as his hot-shot partner by chance. The issue here is that the Bohemian Rhapsody star just so happens to be one of the worst casting choices in recent memory.
Malek does not fit this role in any shape or form. Calling the shots and yelling at officers that mess up ‘his’ crime scene with every chance he gets falls flat, making you hope he’s going to hand in his gun before this case is closed. Clashing with Washington due to the total lack of chemistry, some of the films most serious moments are almost spoof-like thanks to Malek’s deadpan delivery. Spouting lines that feel cut from better cop films, hearing him warn his new ally not to piss on his shoes and tell him it’s raining conjures all the intimidation of a traffic warden, rather than a no-nonsense homicide detective. The smartest choice The Little Things could’ve made was having him swap roles with his other award-winning co-star, Jared Leto, as the film’s prime suspect.
The former Joker might be able to tap into his chilling side, but Malek is so jarringly off as the detective trying to nail him, it’s a wonder the two didn’t flip for who got which part. Causing friction for the two detectives and loving every second, it’s a decent turn from Leto, but nothing we haven’t seen before. That’s coincidentally the ongoing issue with most of the film; it’s a potential thriller wrapped in cliches and never makes an effort to lean in to something new.
Perhaps it’s because Hancock’s story is a product of its time, of which we’re constantly reminded of, that it never takes off. Littered with billboards of films from the 90s, and even with the prolific Night Stalker getting a mention, this is a script that hasn’t caught up on the films that superseded it years later. The pre-Seven, Prisoners and many other blood-freezing thrillers have already done what this film tries and fails at. Ultimately, in a movie so invested in digging up the past, maybe the only thing that should’ve stayed buried was itself.