There are three principal characters in John Lee Hancock‘s The Little Things (theatrical + HBO Max, 1.29), a cops-chase-killer drama set in 1990 Los Angeles.

Denzel Washington plays the wise old cop, seasoned but spooked by some past tragedy that Hancock’s script (written in ’91 or ’92) doesn’t tell us about until right before the end. Rami Malek plays the young cop, a tense hot-dog who wears perfectly tailored skinny suits. And Jared Leto plays the wacko weirdo baddy-waddy with sunken eyes, a pot belly and dirty Jesus hippie hair.

The first hour of The Little Things is all cliched, formulaic character shadings about Denzel’s past (borrowed from a hundred other cop films about a detective who withdrew from active frontline duty but now has has to return and face his demons while dealing with some bad buried business and blah-dee-blah-blah-blah-blah-dee-blah) + the building of trust between himself and hot-dog Malek.

They wind up working hand in hand to try and capture a nocturnal murderer of young women. And I’m telling you straight and true that the movie doesn’t kick in until Leto shows up, or roughly around the 60-minute mark.

I’m not saying if Leto is actually playing a killer or not (he might be), but he’s obviously offering a variation of Kevin Spacey‘s John Doe in Se7en. And he owns the film when he turns that weird shit on.

And then Hancock has the absolute friggin’ nerve to completely duplicate the finale of Se7en except for one or two things — (a) killer and cop drive out to a desert area so killer can reveal something big, (b) killer taunts cop by telling him to dig in three or four different spots but it just stalling, (c) killer taunts cop with knowledge about his own family and his own shortcomings as a dad, (d) cop seethes and seethes some more…

The difference is that unlike Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in Se7en, Rami and Denzel don’t call in choppers or backup and decide to fix things up. So the bad stuff is handled but destined to linger.

The problem is that we all expect a good cop drama to deliver some form of rough justice. We want things to balance out on some level, What happens at the end of The Little Things is not justice — it’s evasion. Stuff being buried or brushed aside.

Leto gives the movie its only real energy. Denzel is one of our greats, but he really needs to drop 20 pounds. With a little dieting and treadmill action he could get back to where he was in Man on Fire. Malek is okay.

So The Little Things is basically a poor man’s Se7en mixed in with sprinklings from The Onion Field and Manhunter and you-tell-me-how-many-other haunted cop films.

Question: What kind of stupid-ass detective reacts like a nervous rookie because it’s dark out and some woman has rustled some bushes before coming into view?

The period cars and whatnot look good. But there were no hookers on the streets of Los Angeles in 1990. I was here and driving around so don’t tell me.

Wiki sidebar: The first draft of The Little Things was written in 1993 for Steven Spielberg to direct. Spielberg passed because it was too dark. Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty and Danny DeVito were all separately attached to direct before Hancock decided to helm his own screenplay.

Washington signed on in March 2019. Malek joined the cast in May ’19. Leto joined the following August. Principal photography began on 9.2.19. Principal photography wrapped in December 2019.