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film review

Denzel Washington stars in writer-director John Lee Hancock's thriller The Little Things.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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  • The Little Things
  • Written and directed by John Lee Hancock
  • Starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto
  • Classification R; 127 minutes

There is something exciting and fresh about encountering something so old as The Little Things. Because while the new serial-killer thriller was filmed at the tail end of 2019 and features stars both everlasting (Denzel Washington) and rising (Rami Malek), its story, characters and overall execution feel recovered from a time capsule, buried circa 1997. And not only because the film takes place in the mid-1990s.

Following two odd-couple cops and their hunt for a Los Angeles-based predator, writer-director John Lee Hancock’s film is a just-the-facts-ma’am procedural so straight-ahead it might recalibrate your pandemic-hunched spine. Washington plays the gruff, seen-it-all cop who, suffering burnout after his last murder case went sideways, lives a quiet life patrolling California highways and tending to his dog. Malek is the hot-shot LAPD homicide detective facing a docket full of murdered young women. And Jared Leto is the long-haired freak who brings the two officers together for the case of a lifetime.

Those wondering where any subversive or even novel element comes in – surely, the whole movie isn’t just about tough-guy heroes seeking to avenge poor defenceless little dead girls from the perverts of the world – should stop rubbing their temples immediately. There is very little in The Little Things that hasn’t been done, like this coming pun, to death already. Think of the early to late-1990s/early-aughts heyday of such cop-saviour fantasies as Kiss the Girls, The Glimmer Man, The Watcher, Washington’s own The Bone Collector and Fallen, or Se7en (but without David Fincher’s nihilistic themes and uncompromising aesthetic). The men get to be stoic avengers. The women get to be nude corpses.

One explanation for The Little Things’s defiant datedness is the simple fact that Hancock wrote the film back in 1993 and, according to the filmmaker, hasn’t changed much in the script since.

Rami Malek plays a hot-shot LAPD homicide detective facing a docket full of murdered young women.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

On the one hand, that is a remarkable and admirable feat; rarely does a screenplay spend so many decades in development hell without being completely reconceived in the process. And it is genuinely refreshing to see a big-budget movie starring real-deal actors that doesn’t involve superheroes, harbour franchise ambitions or seek to trade in on easy paperback-to-screen familiarity. But in its frozen-in-time sensibilities, its stubborn refusal to engage with the evolution of the police-procedural genre, The Little Things arrives with a deflated, why-bother sense of futility.

This doesn’t make the film irredeemably bad or worthless. Hancock (The Blind Side, The Founder) keeps the action moving briskly and with little tonal confusion, highlighting just what a polished studio-favoured professional can do when given gobs of money and zero intellectual-property obligations. And his trio of leading men are all given ample space to play to their strengths: Washington is commanding and intimidating, Malek is tightly coiled and entertainingly nervy, and Leto is creepy-slash-ridiculous in an auditioning-for-the-Joker kind of way.

The film’s final moments also come so very close to pushing the story into a compelling place. But Hancock’s one-two punch of competing twists – one that is eye-rolling and easily telegraphed, the other that neatly rewires the film’s themes – arrive too late to make The Little Things into something bigger. Something worth talking about today.

The Little Things is available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes and the Cineplex Store, starting Jan. 29

In the interest of consistency, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)