The Bock’s Office: ‘The Little Things’ a detective story that garners little interest
2 out of 4 stars
Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Natalie Morales, and Jared Leto
Any time you can say you’ve got three Oscar winners attached to a crime drama, it’s all but assumed it will be a riveting watch. But, as the lead character of “The Little Things” likes to remind everybody, it pays to look closer than the obvious.
The police career of Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) used to be solid gold, but after being nudged out of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for health and personal reasons, he’s reduced to doing grunt work up north in Bakersfield. When Deke is sent by his superiors back to LA on an errand, he quickly becomes embroiled in his former workplace’s latest case.
What starts as professional curiosity turns into a renewed obsession as he learns a series of recent murders are unmistakably related to the same trail of evidence that he was following before being forced to exit. Though the young lead detective (Rami Malek) is hesitant to get help from the veteran, it becomes apparent that only Deke has the familiarity with the details to catch this killer.
Washington has played plenty of law enforcement officials in his career, and he appears to compile a bit of each one to create Deke’s personality, from the eccentricity of Keith Frazier in “Inside Man” to the hard-boiled nature of Easy Rawlins in “Devil in a Blue Dress” and, to a lesser degree, the autocratic attitude of “Training Day” antihero Alonzo Harris.
You can’t fault him for crafting a well-rounded and flawed character, even if the end result may not be what he wants, though you see a huge shift in Deke’s mentality as he sheds his Barney Fife deputy getup for a slick suit that commands more respect.
After gaining universal acclaim for portraying someone as uniquely clothed as Freddie Mercury, Malek shows he can be sharply dressed without being the center of attention as Jim Baxter, a detective with the same dogged nature of his sudden partner but the notable hindrance of being unable to shut off his work brain when he gets home to his family.
Though Baxter is unfamiliar with Deke’s history, you’d think he’d pick up on the unease his colleagues show toward the returned pariah, with strong supporting performances from Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney and Michael Hyatt as the department mainstays who view Deke through a rather jaded lens.
It’s not easy to upstage someone like Denzel, but Jared Leto manages to steal the show the instant he’s introduced as the prime suspect. The actor seems to have an inherent talent for playing folks on the fringe of society, in this case a greasy-haired loner who passes off his abundance of police knowledge as being a crime buff while continuously showing his interrogators a wicked facial expression that says, “You’ll never prove anything.”
The 1990 setting explains some of the shortcomings in the police work here, as well as reminding viewers that yes, once upon a time, phone booths were relevant and the forensics lab was seen by cops as a place where gutless nerds only served to ruin hours of casework with technicalities like incomplete fingerprints and messy bite patterns.
Reportedly, the screenplay’s origins stretch back nearly 30 years ago when John Lee Hancock was shopping around a project before finally being able to make it himself. Kudos to him for being able to boast the rare honor of writer and director of a major feature, but few of the accolades for this movie belong to him, given the cast’s talents and the effective musical score by Thomas Newman.
You don’t have to wear a badge to know that many of the details here are obvious red flags and always have been. Permitting such a damaged detective to casually step back into his old job and get back on the same investigation that forced him to leave in the first place…
Well, the police captain who allows that simply shouldn’t have a job.
Hancock also relies on the tried-and-true cliché that a seasoned cop like Deke is able to stare at a crime scene or old mugshots and envision everything exactly as it happened. A skilled investigator surely has some kind of process like that, but are we to believe that he has just enough psychic prowess to get the clue he needs but not quite enough to plot out a way to nab a culprit by the book?
To Hancock’s credit, a crime movie where lawmen follow all the rules is rarely what crowds want to watch, and even if he drops the ball in terms of procedural realism, several scenes showing the victims — all women — being stalked are masterful in their suspense.
Worth a look but not much more, “The Little Things” takes its title from Deke’s insistence that minor details can be the difference between a killer going free or being convicted. That’s not untrue, but if the guy who wrote that dialogue were following his own advice, he would have spent less time on minutiae and more time avoiding the glaring plot holes that make his movie less successful than it could be.
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