Much like Den of Thieves before it, The Little Things is an extraordinarily paltry knockoff of a rightly heralded classic from 1995. Much as in this site’s initial review of that film, the classic in question here will go unnamed. Look, this driftless, feckless tomfoolery is unfit to be mentioned in the same breath as 1995’s Copycat for crying out loud, let alone that other title. But in the spirit of playfulness embodied here by Jared Leto, whose ridiculous prosthetic-enhanced getup as did-he-or-didn’t-he dirtbag Albert Sparma resembles a ridiculous cross of Rob Zombie, Uncle Rico and Hobbit Dwarf #12, here’s a little hint: At best, this movie is more like 1.75.

The only thing goofier here than Leto’s lewk is the idea that Steven Spielberg somehow deemed John Lee Hancock’s screenplay “too dark” for him to direct in 1993, the same year Spielberg released one of the most unsparing movies about genocide ever made. Surely he was just trying to be nice about what was, and still is, a bad script apparently untouched since then. (The film is set in 1990.) But Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty and even Danny DeVito allegedly passed on the project, too, and Hancock (whose most recent film was 2019’s similarly limp The Highwaymen) has taken the directorial reins 28 years later.

Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) is spending his waning days in law enforcement as a sheriff’s deputy in Kern County, California. Placating the owner of the Black Angus steakhouse for prankster vandalism of the “G” in their sign is what passes for excitement in Deke’s world now. Years ago, Deke was a legend working homicide cases in Los Angeles. But he flamed out after a consuming series of murders left him with a suspension, a divorce and a triple bypass. “A rush-hour trainwreck,” as his old buddy-turned-Captain Carl Farris (Terry Kinney) puts it.

Sent to his old stomping grounds to collect evidence for a small-time case in Kern County, Deke winds up riding shotgun on a string of grisly murders of women that is under investigation by his replacement, Detective Jim “Jimmy” Baxter. See, you really need the quotation marks on “Jimmy” to fully understand the etymological evolution of Baxter’s nickname. He’s played by Rami Malek, aka Undeserving Oscar Winner and Little Things Co-Star #2, who probably could, upon request, spin some 20-minute bit of backstory as to why Baxter doesn’t like to take his hands from his pockets. Being trapped in that conversation would be preferable to watching anything done here by Malek, once so electric on TV’s Mr. Robot, now little more than a stripped socket and so stiff as to seem like a manufacturing cyborg more than a flesh-and-blood person. 

Washington gives you the faintest glimmer of hope that Deke might cross the lamentations he brought to Roman Israel with the sort of lawman he has played so often they could fill a book of those couch-fabric swatches you take home to match the paint on your walls. Things is, yes, like watching that paint dry, only with Leto giggling behind you as he runs his finger through the occasional gloop to smear it and make you angry. Washington simply becomes the couch over which Malek and Leto run roughshod. (There is a scene where Leto and Malek trade Larry David’s suspicious eyebrows with each other for several seconds that should be enough justification to revoke their respective Academy Awards.) Washington is simply too high-wattage a star to not bring some ephemeral conviction to this. But ultimately Deke is just another Cop With a Secret with the shopworn trait of seeing and speaking to the dead victims he couldn’t save. This is the most phoned-in Washington has ever felt, and he’s someone who has starred in two — two — Equalizer films.

As you guessed, Leto’s Sparma is the most likely suspect in both the murders Baxter is repping and the ones that tore Deke apart years ago. (Note the moment when a woman who survived an attack during the movie’s cold open riffles through several perfectly normal-looking mugshots until gasping when she gets to Sparma’s, which appears slathered with a Lo-fi Instagram filter.) Rather than form a believable bond that finds by-the-book Baxter tearing out pages as Deke did before, these ersatz partners mostly just spout boilerplate dialogue that wouldn’t even cut mustard for interns on Criminal Minds. Does Things have a scene where one of them grabs a snarky forensic tech by the lapels? You bet your patoot. Oh, and did you know that it is, ahem, the little things that will get you caught or killed?

From here, Hancock shifts the film into a cat-and-mouse game between the detectives and their quarry. Sparma waxes rhapsodic about guacamole and potato skins while quenching his thirst with soda slurps in scenes that are intended to sizzle with intense gotcha energy but mostly just make you want to punch Jared Leto yet again when it seems there’s no spot left unpunched. Even the soundtrack becomes its own perversely fascinating comedy of errors. Does Deke need to hear a hard truth? “Tell It Like It Is.” Is he back on a cold case? “At Last.” Does he think he’s found the killer? “My Guy.” Are Deke and Baxter following him? So help me … “I Will Follow Him.”

There’s one point where Baxter is barely able to stay awake on a stakeout. Brother, I know the feeling. Look, just roust me to laugh whenever this is adapted into some sort of ill-fated TV show like that Bone Collector nonsense from 2019 that you remembered and forgot about again before even finishing this sentence. Even in a pandemic, January is still January.