John Lee Hancock is a very particular niche, and with the possible exception of The Alamo, he’s proven himself as the director you want for putting a particular character under the microscope. The Rookie might not have been a great film, but it was an uplifting dissection that won audiences over. The Blind Side may have ultimately caught some serious backlash, but it took you into a certain world and was, no matter the flaws it may have had, rather gripping. The Founder, obviously buoyed to a great degree by Michael Keaton, pulled people into a story, and man, no one had any idea they were going to care about. Saving Mr. Banks, which remains underrated, gives Tom Hanks a shot at meeting Hancock’s unique version of character gazing.
It’s a brand, and one that perhaps reaches its zenith with the tragically overlooked The Highwaymen, but things are different when Hancock is doing the writing. From the wonderfully fun The Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, to the curiously boring The Alamo, to Snow White and the Huntsman, his screenplays are uneven misfires more often than not.
The history is worth a mention, because it informs where The Little Things does a few things rather well, and why the majority of it is a waste of time.
Deke (Denzel Washington) is an aging cop in L.A. who had his life turned upside-down years ago because of his involvement in trying to solve a serial killer case. Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) is the new guard working the latest iteration that has the city on edge. Deke is haunted by the victims he failed, and it all caused problems with his marriage and career. Even if he hadn’t specifically fallen out of cop shop political favor by way of a serial killer case (which, let’s pretend is a thing), Jim isn’t convinced that older him can actually be a lot of help.
The investigation quickly turns up leads that put Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) in the crosshairs, and in case the evidence isn’t solid enough for the audience, Leto twirls his mustache repeatedly. We soon find ourselves in a cat-and-mouse that reminds almost unbearably of Se7en, but also harkens back to a dozen films going through the nineties all the way to Prisoners. Deke wanders through the investigation like a man who has been beaten down by all of this before, and doesn’t care about certain rules this time around. Baxter shuffles along like someone new to the badge who can’t wait to get beaten down himiself. Sparma all but cackles merrily along as he taunts the cops as though that’s all he’s ever wanted out of life.
When the film is about Deke, it’s an engrossing dive into a man at a certain nexus who battles himself as much as anything else while trying to get his past to direct his future. It’s a The Founder style “tear apart” that hopes to examine what happens next by virtue of who he is (or became) instead of simply what happened before. Washington delivers in almost every moment, and frankly seems to be in a different movie than everyone else, putting together a cop you nearly always believe as on a path he examines as much as follows.
When The Little Things is about the case, Sparma, or connecting with Baxter, it’s almost self-mockery. Scenes are tense for trivial reasons, Sparma is creepy because, apparently, being sufficiently crazy is creepy, and Baxter winds his way down a road of stupid decisions that would make ’80s horror blink. A cockamamie (and I don’t use that word lightly, or often) interrogation scene feels as though it might have been improv, and I almost hope that it was, with Leto becoming increasingly cheesy and ludicrous, and Washington losing his cool, not at the character, but at Leto for wasting his time. Deke is almost caught in Sparma’s apartment when Sparma calls in the cops, and it’s all very nerve-racking, because… something bad would happen if cops caught a cop in a suspect’s apartment without a warrant… apparently. As we roll toward the end, Baxter follows Sparma down a bonkers rabbit hole just to prove he’ll dance for Sparma and that he’s letting the case get the better of him just as Deke did.
There’s no question that we at least get a decent ride with Washington, who never managed a greater testament to his abilities than remaining watchable in this, but it all ends irrelevantly, which seems the greatest failure possible for a would-be ’90s murderer hunt. It becomes the antithesis of that old nugget about great movies truly beginning after they end because the real story is what happens when you’re left to think about everything you just watched, which is to say that it leaves a kind of mental vacuum because it turns out you didn’t actually watch anything. That’s certainly its own forced experience, and it’s one that is pretty unnerving, but it only helps prove that director Hancock cannot free himself from the shackles of writer Hancock.