In the 1990’s production companies cranked out mid-budget crime thrillers on a monthly basis.  Pair an A-list star with a well-known sidekick, throw in a serial killer plot and the film was guaranteed to make two to three times its budget at the box office.  Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992).  Bruce Willis and Sarah-Jessica Parker in Striking Distance (1993).  Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector (1999).  Even Al Pacino and John Goodman in Sea of Love.  Although that was technically 1989.

Eventually the studios grew tired of chasing modest success and adopted more of a tentpole blockbuster mentality, relegating the crime thriller to the world of lower budget indie films. 

The Little Things, the new film from writer-director John Lee Hancock, is the exception that proves the rule.  It’s a mid-budget crime thriller starring three Oscar winners (Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto) and destined for the big screen, but thanks to COVID, it will now hit HBO Max at the same time it arrives in theaters.

The Little Things looks and feels like a 1990’s crime thriller partly because it is set in 1990.  It’s less an homage to the films it’s based on and more due to the need to eliminate cell phones from the narrative of the film. 

All of the 90’s plot beats are present and accounted for:

  1. Denzel Washington is a former homicide detective who fell from grace for some reason that will undoubtedly be revealed late in the film. 
  2. There’s a new series of murders that are similar to a previous series of murders that caused our hero’s downfall. 
  3. Through a series of coincidences and implausible plot twists, our hero is brought in to consult on the new crimes. 
  4. The investigation leads to a suspect, but there’s not enough proof to arrest him…yet.

The three leads have to work hard to give the film some dramatic weight, and their efforts show.  Everybody spouts cop jargon and looks appropriately world weary, but we’ve seen all of this many times before.  The obsessed detective who spends his days looking into the abyss to save all of us from evil has been a thriller trope for as long as crime thrillers have existed. 

The screenplay offers nothing new to this well-worn genre.  It’s the kind of script where the title of the film ultimately appears in the dialogue.  “It’s the little things that get you caught,” Denzel’s detective tells Rami Malek’s younger investigator.  Insert eye roll emoji.

The worst plot device of all is Jared Leto as the prime suspect.  He looks like Charles Manson and speaks in a creepy whisper.  In case you don’t pick up on the Manson reference, Leto’s handyman has a copy of Helter Skelter in his bookcase.  He might as well have “serial killer” tattooed on his forehead.  Makes you wonder how he keeps a day job. 

I will tip my cap to the ending of the film.  Does it entirely work?  I’ll leave that up to you to decide.  It’s definitely gutsy and the only true surprise the film has to offer. 

Despite all my criticisms, I actually enjoyed The Little Things enough to justify the two hours I spent watching it.  It’s not a “so bad it’s good” film.  It was more of a nostalgia trip for me, a throwback to a type of film that’s virtually disappeared from the movie landscape.  Just expect to seriously suspend your disbelief and be willing to chuckle a little at its self-seriousness.  If you’re lying on your sofa, scrolling through HBO Max on a Saturday night, you could do a lot worse.  

The Little Things hits theaters and HBO Max on January 29th.