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‘The Little Things’: Story looks sort of familiar

Writer-director John Lee Hancock has been pointing out in interviews that he wrote the screenplay for “The Little Things” in 1993.

That explains the period setting for the film, which takes place at a time before DNA usage was prevalent in tracking serial killers. But Hancock also might be stressing that date because it means he wrote it two years before “Se7en” was released.

“The Little Things,” which opens in theaters and premieres on HBO Max on Friday, has more than a few surface similarities with the 1995 David Fincher film. Both involve a world-weary older black cop working a serial killer case with a younger, hotshot detective. The suspected serial killer seems to enjoy toying with the detectives and has either surveilled or at least researched the younger detective’s family / home life.

As suspect Albert Sparma, Jared Leto speaks with a voice and cadence that is reminiscent of Kevin Spacey’s character in “Se7en.” They simultaneously manage to be emotionally detached and taunting in their manner of speech. There also is a pivotal scene in which Sparma leads Baxter to a remote location, and I was afraid Gwyneth Paltrow’s head might make an appearance.

“Little Things” isn’t a carbon copy of “Se7en,” but it is a throwback to another era.

In some ways, that’s a good thing. A star-driven, mid-budget adult thriller is welcome at a time when only movies that cost more than $200 million or less than $2 million seem to get made. In other ways — a story of cops willing to break the law in pursuit of a suspect and the system that closes ranks around them and protects them — is more problematic in the 21st century.

Washington plays Joe Deacon, a former Los Angeles police detective now working as a sheriff’s deputy upstate. He has to return to his old stomping grounds to pick up evidence, and based on the reception he receives, Deacon didn’t leave the force beloved by all.

He arrives in town as the department is dealing with a series of murders reminiscent to the case that led to Deacon’s meltdown — a divorce, a triple bypass and his leaving the department.

Malek’s Baxter, who is in charge of the current case, has no leads, and Deacon’s old-school skills start to be useful. The two become reluctant partners in search of the murderer.

The acting is the little thing that makes “The Little Things” memorable. A landlord at a bloody crime scene asks Deacon how one gets used to the smell.

“If you’re lucky, you don’t,” he responds.

Deacon may not react to the smell, but he’s not a man who’s gotten used to the everything he’s seen and everything he’s done. Washington makes the viewer feel the weight Deacon carries — how it pushes him and how it threatens to crush him.

He views the victims whose killers he never found as his lifelong responsibility.

The talents of Washington and Malek make it fun to watch the early sparring between Deacon and Baxter as well as the evolution of the relationship when they become allies when confronting Sparma.

Leto almost is unrecognizable as the suspect. He has a bit of a gut but a gaunt face that makes his eyes even more prominent. He speaks in almost a monotone, but there’s a devilish twinkle in those eyes that makes his every action seem like a potential threat.

There also are strong supporting performances by a trio of HBO veterans, Michael Hyatt and Chris Bauer from “The Wire” and Terry Kinney from “Oz.”

More than a couple plot developments strain credibility. Deacon apparently can tail a car from miles behind it. But it gets enough of “The Little Things” right to hold the viewer’s attention, even if there’s a temptation to pick it apart once it ends.

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