Producers: Mark Johnson and John Lee Hancock   Director: John Lee Hancock   Screenplay: John Lee Hancock   Cast: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Natalie Morales, Terry Kinney, Chris Bauer, Joris Jarsky and Isabel Arraiza   Distributor: Warner Bros.

Grade: C

Writer-director John Lee Hancock must have an inordinate admiration for David Fincher’s “Se7en,” since “The Little Things” is little more than a surprisingly unimaginative, low-octane retread of that 1995 thriller.  And by casting Denzel Washington in what might be called the Morgan Freeman role, Hancock mixes a bland reminder of “Training Day” into the recipe as well, using—or more properly misusing—Rami Malek as his Ethan Hawke substitute.  The movie also proves that Jared Leto is no Kevin Spacey—which some might consider good news in personal terms, but in narrative ones is yet another debit.

This is a serial-killer movie about a villain in 1990 Los Angeles who has viciously murdered a series of women.  The lead investigator is Jim Baxter (Malek), a prim, smug young fellow impeccably dressed in black suit, who’s thus far made little headway.  But his luck changes—though whether for better or worse only time will tell—when he falls in with Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington), still a legend in the department (though not beloved of all of his old colleagues, for reasons that are gradually revealed over the course of the film).

Deke is now a deputy sheriff in Kern County, sent to L.A. to pick up some evidence in a case his department is involved with.  Greeted coolly by his old commander, he catches Baxter’s eye, and the younger man invites him to accompany him to the scene of the killer’s latest crime, where his expertise in noticing the minutiae that lead to identifying culprits quickly becomes evident.  Deke decides to take vacation time to remain in L.A. and assist Baxter, not only because the case is an intriguing one but because it might be connected with the unsolved one that destroyed him years before—leading to his divorce, heart surgery, and retirement.

To make a long story short and skip the confusing details, Deke is instrumental in identifying Albert Sparma (Leto), a slovenly, creepy electrician, as the prime suspect. Sparma proves far too smug and cagey to be induced to confess, and so Deke and Baxter tail him incessantly, though without managing to secure the necessary evidence. 

That results in a thoroughly ridiculous conclusion, in which Sparma persuades Baxter, who has become obsessed with finding out the truth, to accompany him into the desert, where he promises to reveal where he’s buried the body of his latest victim.  What occurs out in there, and afterward, isn’t quite so dark and depressing as the outcome of “Se7en,” but its degree of cynicism almost matches its implausibility.

Nonetheless, even at the close the film remains a prestige production in visual terms.  Michael Corenblith’s production design captures the sleaziness of the L.A. of three decades ago, and John Schwartzman’s widescreen cinematography is skillful, even given the pervasive gloom.  The film moves very slowly, with Hancock’s somber pacing abetted by Robert Frazen’s unhurried editing, and the funereal atmosphere is accentuated by Thomas Newman’s menacing score. 

“The Little Things” may have a complex (if not especially clever) plot, but it focuses so intently on the three stars that the supporting cast has a negligible chance to impress.  Washington, who looks to have put on considerable weight for his role, is in entirely dependable form as Deke, as convincing in the scenes where the deputy is faced with undertaking some strenuous physical activity, like climbing on a roof to avoid detection by other cops, as he is in those familiar ones where Deke stares intently at the photos of victims he’s taped to his shabby motel wall in hopes of their “speaking” to him about their sad demises. 

While Washington seems comfortable in Deke’s shoes, Malek does not in Baxter’s.  The star who brought Freddy Mercury to life in “Bohemian Rhapsody” appears straitjacketed here, hemmed in by the prissiness of the character until the naïve fellow allows himself to be flummoxed by his tormentor in the final act and does something very stupid.  It’s a thankless role to begin with, and Malek, though talented, never finds a way to enliven it.

By contrast Leto is all thespian flamboyance as the preening ruffian Sparma.  He’s helped in conveying the lout’s scummy character by a Charles Manson hairdo and beard, a slovenly wardrobe, and a prominent paunch, but it’s his swaggering style and malicious grin that are most memorable.  It’s a very showy performance that overshadows both Washington and Malek, but Leto doesn’t even appear until the running-time is nearly at the halfway point, and in the end Sparma doesn’t wind up as smart as he thinks he is.

Neither does the film.  Whatever you think of “Se7en,” it had a diabolical cunning this effort inspired by it utterly lacks.   The distinguished pedigree of “The Little Things” promises much, but the rewards prove disappointingly small.