Washington, Malek and Leto revisit 1990s noir in detective thriller

·4-min read
Rami Malek in "The Little Things", out Friday in theaters and on HBO Max streaming.

When "The Little Things" was written, Denzel Washington had just won his first Oscar, Jared Leto was an unknown actor fresh off the bus in Hollywood, and Rami Malek had barely finished elementary school.

Now each an Academy Award-winning star in their own right, the trio have combined to finally bring the three-decade-old dark, detective thriller to the screen, out Friday in theaters and on HBO Max streaming.

Set in the murky criminal underworld of 1990 Los Angeles, the movie finds a semi-retired cop (Washington) pairing up with a hotshot young sergeant (Malek) to track a suspect in a string of grotesque killings (Leto).

The A-list cast helped director John Lee Hancock dust off his script, changing dialogue and re-sculpting characters while leaving the action in its original time period -- long before "CSI"-style forensics or cellphones.

"You don't imagine the character the first time you read the script -- you have to find the character," said Washington, a double-Oscar winner. "You're introduced to him or her when you read the script, but that's day one of the work."

For Washington's role, that meant imbuing sheriff's deputy Joe "Deke" Deacon with a shadowy past and a fiery devotion to police work regardless of the cost to his personal life, or those caught in the crossfire.

Despite the seemingly formulaic premise, Hancock penned the film as a macabre response to the buddy cop movies of the early 1990s, setting out to "embrace the genre and subvert it at the same time."

Nothing is clear-cut, from the film's mysterious suspect to the lack of neatly solvable clues, as the two lawmen struggle with their own demons while they race to get a murderer off the streets.

Hancock, after finding mainstream success with "The Blind Side," was convinced to revisit his script by "Breaking Bad" producer Mark Johnson.

Washington told journalists he signed up because the writing just felt "different" -- and "if it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage."

"Bohemian Rhapsody" star Malek said having Washington on board made the project "a no-brainer," and praised Leto for completing the trio's "explosive energy."

"There was a moment where I did think 'I've kind of walked on the darker side of the universe a lot in my career -- maybe it's time to not do that again,'" added Leto, who won an Oscar playing a trans woman with HIV in "Dallas Buyers Club."

"But after seeing the opportunity here I just couldn't say no."

- 'Back to our tent' -

Despite the throwback setting -- carefully crafted with shots of Los Angeles landmarks that have avoided redevelopment over the decades -- the stars said the film's flawed heroes offered a surprisingly modern cautionary tale for the pandemic era.

"Where obsession starts to overtake so many other aspects of your life... this year probably has taught us a lot about that," said Malek.

"We get so focused on certain things and so narrow-minded, a certain tunnel vision about what has to be achieved in life... we perhaps start to neglect the most important things."

For Leto, a sense of always "running on the treadmill" in pursuit of career success with "no time to focus" had kicked in even before coronavirus brought the world to a halt.

Leto had famously checked into a silent desert retreat when the pandemic first hit the US, meaning he was oblivious about Covid-19 until comparatively late.

"When I went away there was only 150 cases in America, and we had no phones, no eye contact... when I came out there was a state-of-emergency shutdown," he recalled.

For deeply spiritual Washington, the pandemic has evoked the Book of Exodus, when God "sent the plague down and sent every man, woman and child back to their tent."

"We've all been sent back to our tent," he explained, before offering a somber warning.

"As we go back outside, if we don't look out and take better care and treat our fellow man and woman as we would want to be treated, we will all be destroyed."