Although he’s rarely thought of as an action movie guy — two Oscars and seven more nominations will do that — Denzel Washington has amassed one of the stronger resumes of cop and detective movies over the last 30 years. He won one of his Academy Awards for Training Day, and several of his other crime films — Deja VuInside Man, and especially Devil in a Blue Dress — rank among the very best of the last few decades. Even when the final product’s on the schlockier side — your The Equalizers, and your Virtuositys — Denzel always shows up, always elevates material that’s arguably unworthy of the gravitas he brings.

That’s certainly the case with The Little Things, which is destined for footnote status in Washington’s great career in genre films. Despite his typically brooding performance, The Little Things is mostly a sleepy drama recycled from many superior films about the brutal toll of police work. Washington plays Joe Deacon, a sheriff from a small town in California where he investigates crimes like who destroyed the ‘G’ in the neon sign above the local Black Angus steakhouse. When he’s assigned to run an errand down to Los Angeles, Deke seems reluctant.

Arriving at L.A.P.D. headquarters, it becomes clear why. Years before the events of The Little Things, Deke was the star of the L.A. homicide squad, until a case he couldn’t solve consumed him, and ultimately cost him his job and his home life. He’s still got friends on the force, most of whom seem to be played by veterans of The Wire, including Chris Bauer as his old partner Sal and Michael Hyatt as the coroner.

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In a convenient bit of movie timing, Deke’s return to Los Angeles coincides with a new rash of crimes investigated by the man who essentially replaced him on the force, Sergeant Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek). Before long, Deke begins to suspect there’s a connection with his old case and Jimmy’s current one, and he begins following Jimmy, offering his help and advice. Jimmy seems wary of the quirky small-town cop wandering around the station, until Deke’s instincts help spark some new leads, and a potential suspect: An appliance repairman named Albert.

With his greasy hair, scraggly beard, pale skin, scarecrow face, and sunken eyes, Albert is played by Jared Leto as if someone dared him to look as physically unappealing as humanly possible. Once he enters the film around its midpoint, The Little Things pivots away from a more generic police investigation movie to something closer (at least in theory, if not in execution) to a psychological thriller, where the suspect toys with the police as they try to catch him in the act.

Only they don’t try all that intensely, and Albert, for his very serial killer-y look and endless knowing smirks at Deke and Jimmy, never musters much menace. (His drink order at a bar: A Shirley Temple ... to go.) Washington seems suitably haunted by Deke’s past, but Malek’s role — as a young family man who’s essentially Deke before he lost everything — requires him to lose his moorings as Jimmy. Instead, at nearly every point he hits the same note of cold, detached efficiency. If the case is destroying Jimmy inside, Malek never shows it.

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The Little Things comes from writer/director John Lee Hancock, whose resume includes very little experience in this particular genre beyond his previous film, The Highwaymen. Most of Hancock’s work as a director belongs to the world of biopics: The FounderThe Blind SideThe Rookie, and Saving Mr. Banks. Despite its fictional origin, The Little Things feels a little like those other Hancock movies: Dutiful, handsome, earnest, and a little bland. It’s also rife with cliches; the sinister Albert even tells Jimmy how they’re not so different, and muses that in another lifetime they could have been friends. At that point, it’s shocking no one calls him a loose cannon and demands his badge and gun.

By the end, The Little Things recalls a sleepier version of Prisoners — and, as a general rule, bleak crime dramas should not be sleepy. Whether it’s the writing or some of the acting, or a combination fo both, the film never gains a sense of urgency — not about the main case, not about the two lead cops’ careers, not about Albert’s attempts to undermine and evade them. “It’s the little things that rip you apart. It’s the little things that get you caught,” Deke explains to Jimmy several times during their investigation. Some of The Little Things’ little things, like the nuances of Washington’s performance, are outstanding. This film is a reminder that the big things are important, too.

RATING: 4/10

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