John Lee Hancock wrote the first draft of the script for The Little Things in 1993 (for Steven Spielberg, an unbelievably counterintuitive choice for this grim, gloomy crime thriller), and it's a great pity that we'll never know what exactly went into that first draft, or what the finished film would have been like if it had been made at that point. It's possible to imagine that the film would have beaten 1995's Se7en to theaters, for example. That would have been the most beneficial thing that could possibly have happened The Little Things, since it would have made it a much less biting criticism to point out that it is in many large and small ways basically a clone of Se7en, though one of the big ways it's not is that it's pretty astoundingly mediocre. And maybe that mediocrity would be a little bit less extremely apparent if the film wasn't begging us to compare it, down to the level of individual lines of dialogue, with one of the most iconic crime thrillers of the late 20th Century.

Also, if the film had come out in the 1990s, it probably might have been directed by one of the several directors whose hands it passed through over the years, and maybe it would have been less mediocre as a result. For Hancock didn't really establish himself as a movie director until The Rookie in 2002, and it is in that capacity that he has taken it upon himself to personally usher The Little Things in to theΒ  world at last, all these years later. And the thing about Hancock is that he just the most lifeless filmmaker. This is the man whose signature film - at least, it is the one that through some unspeakable accident of history got a Best Picture Oscar nomination - is 2009's The Blind Side, one of those films so perfect devoid of any personality that you almost want to hold it up as an exemplar of perfect hack filmmaking, something that really, genuinely doesn't seem to exist even as you're sitting in front of it, and it's hitting your eyeballs. For that matter, The Little Things might even beat it on that front; I genuinely have a difficult time imagining a movie in this genre that does less to try to distinguish itself or offer any argument why you might find it worth spending 128 minutes staring at it. Maybe Thomas Newman's score.

The essentials: in 1990 (a date that is pinned down very specifically, though all it really does is explain why nobody has cell phones), there's a serial killer running loose in Los Angeles. Somewhat by accident, ancient cop Joe "Deke" Deacon (Denzel Washington), a deputy sheriff from nearby Kern County, ends up investigating the case, though it's outside his jurisdiction. In so doing, he ends up quasi-mentoring LAPD detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), while very carefully hiding how twisted up he's getting inside, as this case dredges up memories of an unsolved case from years in his own past, the one that turned him into a slightly mad husk of a man. About halfway into the film, Deacon and Baxter come upon Albert Sparma (Jared Leto, the recipient of some unconscionably generous acting nominations for this performance), who couldn't possibly seem more suspicious and likely to be their killer. So suspicious and so likely, in fact, that it pretty quickly becomes pretty clear that he's probably faking it, or at least exaggerating the hell out of it, as part of some unsettling deep-set psychological disturbance.

So there's the ingredients; they are assembled in precisely the way one would anticipate, particularly once Leto shows up to do the usual "states cryptic and threatening things in an archly stylised way" routine that Kevin Spacey and Heath Ledger and Anthony Hopkins and Javier Bardem and Edward Norton and Christ knows how many other people have done before him. I will give Leto this much credit: the film is much livelier once he shows up. Not better, but livelier will do in a pinch. One of the curiosities about The Little Things is that all three of its leads are pretty bad for it, but they're bad in three completely differentΒ  ways. Leto is trying much too hard, bursting through the modestly grimy realism of Hancock's directing, and the gross urban nightscapes of John Schwartzman's cinematography with a performance that's pure operatic excesses, a collection of carefully-worked out tics and physical demeanor that practically glow with "look at me! I'm a hungry murderer!" energy. And since part of the point of Sparma is that, whether he's a killer or not, he's trying very hard to play-act the role of a killer, I suppose these extremely visible acting mechanics make a kind of sense. It still feels like the arrival of a comic book supervillain into a quiet slice of life, and Leto's intensity is sort of untethered from anything in the script; it feels like he crafted "nascent serial killer" entirely on his own, and simply plugged in what he came up with into the first serial killer script he was handed.

Washington is his polar opposite, barely seeming to be aware he's in a movie at all. For him to be completely checked-out of a bad script is hardly unfamiliar, at this point - across the 2010s, I think it was rather rare for him to wake up for a given project than to simply skirt across the surface of the screenplay, offering the same grouchy old working class stiff performance time and time again - and he's been worse than he is in The Little Things. But he's also unquestionably been better, and given that his character is ostensibly the focal point of the emotions in the film, his detached, checked-out performance ends up seriously damaging a project that didn't have the luxury of any other problems than the ones baked into the script. That leaves Malek in the Goldilocks spot, neither too wackadoo and melodramatic, nor just flat and bland, and sure enough, he comes the closest to giving a functioning performance. It's not a role that especially suits him (I could never shake the feeling that the film would have profited enormously by swapping him and Leto), and he's not always apparently noticing the points that Baxter, not Deacon, is the protagonist, and has the most opportunities to learn and grow. But at least Baxter feels like a person, and in this movie, that's in short supply.

The acting is merely the most tangible problem with a film that has basically nothing else. We can be fair and say that much of it is merely perfectly adequate, not truly bad; even the script isn't really broken, outside of its lusty embrace of every clichΓ© in the cop movie handbook (it even pulls out a verbatim "we're not so different, you and I" that it plays without a molecule of irony). The big problem with The Little Things is that not one solitary aspect of it is interesting, or creative, or even slightly fun. It's a big old sluggish, airless mass of movie, providing not the slightest jolt to the standard formula as it grinds along its merciless running time, leaving one stiff, draggy scene after another in its wake.