(CNN)“The Little Things” is actually based on a screenplay written in the 1990s, and those dark roots show, in a psychological crime thriller that notably resembles a relic of that era, “Seven.” Grindingly slow, the best one can say is that the movie keeps the audience off balance, while offering a big dose of star power in the Oscar-winning trio of Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto.
Writer-director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) kept the film set in the 1990s, which adds to the macabre tone and the grisly nature of the crimes. When Los Angeles detectives reference the Night Stalker case, in this time frame, they’re only a few years removed from it.
Those detectives are on the trail of a serial killer when a former member of their ranks, Washington’s Joe “Deke” Deacon, pays them a visit from Kern County, where he’s working as a deputy sheriff. Deke, it turns out, was an elite crime-solver, before a case that triggered a “complete meltdown” and sent him retreating to the quieter rural confines to the north.
Deke meets Jim Baxter (Malek), a driven young detective who represents, in essence, an earlier version of himself. Squabbling and wary at first, as they gradually begin comparing notes they realize the two cases, then and now, might be linked, teaming up to see if they can close the books on them.
“It’s the little things that get you caught,” Deke tells his at-first reluctant colleague, as the trail gradually leads to Albert Sparma (Leto), who appears to relish the attention, taunting them at every turn. Few actors can ooze creepiness quite as well — think his version of the Joker in “Suicide Squad,” minus the makeup — and once Leto shows up the tension rises several notches, even if the IQ level exhibited by the cops unfortunately seems to drop accordingly.
A bit like “Dirty Harry,” another relic of film’s serial-killer-hunting past, the moral dilemma turns to just how far the cops are willing to go — how many rules they’ll bend or break — in order to secure a conviction. The young cop/old cop dynamic is equally familiar, with Deke having sacrificed more than just his job on the altar of pursuing justice.
Like Leto, Washington is in his element here as the world-weary cop, so the only significant casting stretch involves Malek, who also happens to have the least-developed character. Ultimately, “The Little Things” meanders a bit too much with stakeouts and the drudgery of police work before getting to the meat of its psychological core, which offers a provocative payoff, if not perhaps one good enough to fully justify the journey.
Warner Bros. made news with its hybrid theatrical-HBO Max distribution strategy, but this is another one of those titles that seems better suited to streaming, despite the impressive marquee. (The studio and streaming service are units of WarnerMedia, as is CNN.)
Those big names make “The Little Things” marginally worth watching, but they still add up to a minor addition to a very well-trafficked genre.
“The Little Things” premieres January 29 in theaters and on HBO Max. It’s rated R.