Fred Kolb’s review published on Letterboxd:
“The Little Things” never stood a chance. Its studio all but set it up for failure. In normal times, it would have been dropped in theaters in January as a palette cleanser, gotten middling reviews, and probably enjoyed a decent run thanks to the name recognition of its leads. Denzel Washington might be 66 years old, but he sure still pulls an audience. The problem is that WB promoted this as the kick-off to their contentious, but undeniably bold initiative to simultaneously drop its major releases in theaters, wherever they are actually open, and on HBO Max for health-conscious viewers to safely enjoy from their couches. The emphasis was on its three Oscar-winning stars, which spells prestige, something the big screen in all its might is still just barely good enough for, but thanks to these incredibly extenuating circumstances, we are lucky enough to experience it in our living rooms instead.
That however would have required a crime thriller approximately on the same level as “Zodiac” or “Se7en”; or in other words, David Fincher behind the camera. I have seen enough of John Lee Hancock’s body of work by now to know that he isn’t someone you sign when your priority is first-rate filmmaking. I wouldn’t go so far as to call “The Little Things” boring, even if it came ever so close to overstaying its welcome at slightly over two hours, but it’s nihilistic, aloof and nobody in it looks like they were all that ecstatic to be part of this. Rami Malek in particular never seems to get a grip on how to convincingly act like a human being with emotions and his robotic approach to a hotshot detective prodigy in the LAPD really hurts him in some of the more astounding developments in the second half.
The main issue is that “The Little Things” pretends to be about a serial killer when it ultimately isn’t all that interested in properly exploring that angle. There was no real need for the setting to be in 1990, except that it’s just far back enough to evoke a sense of true crime, a cold case that would still keep murder buffs on their toes to this day. Instead, it goes for a most unwelcome case study in the deep-seated corruption in law enforcement, how police officers cover for each other instead of following the law they have sworn to uphold. The timing could hardly have been worse. This isn’t the first time Washington has played a cop who thinks following the rules is optional. In fact, he won an Oscar for exactly that type of role two decades ago. But Joe Deacon isn’t really much of a person beyond the obligatory sob story, the obsessed detective who threw himself into a case and sacrificed his marriage, his health and ultimately his career in the process. When he is back in L.A. for an entirely unrelated matter, the guys in charge of solving this string of grisly deaths just can’t wait to get his input, as if they have been waiting around all this time for him to walk in to take over. And while he occasionally does spot a clue his peers overlooked, his contributions ultimately boil down to driving around in a car and investigating a crime he has no business getting involved in.
I will likely get some crap for this take but given Washington’s and Malek’s halfhearted approach to their what can only loosely be described as characters, I have to give Jared Leto credit for showing up here. Deranged psycho killer has been his preferred niche for some time now and he immediately dials it up to a twelve as the main suspect and crime fanatic Albert Sparma and never looks back. Say what you will about his off-screen antics and his tendency to conflate lunacy with method acting, but at least he put in some work for his money. And Thomas Newman’s score, especially when we visit the first crime scene, adds considerable suspense to a few moments that weren’t necessarily deserving of it. The bottom line is that crime thrillers, as overrepresented as they are on the big and small screen, are no easy feat to pull off. As Deke would say, it’s about the little things. And filmmakers and screenwriters have visibly learned a lot about those since 1993 when this script was first written. I have the gnawing suspicion that it hasn't been touched since then, which would explain its failure to account for nearly 30 years of new insights.