Greetings again from the darkness. When a script has bounced around Hollywood for 30 years without getting produced, there is usually a good reason why. Written by John Lee Hancock in the early 1990s, a handful of directors have been attached at various times, but it’s the writer himself who has managed to get it on screen all these years later. Mr. Hancock has found his niche as a director by targeting the precise middle of mainstream with such films as SAVING MR BANKS (2013) and THE BLIND SIDE (2009), an approach more challenging when the topic is chasing a brutal serial killer.
Of course, casting three Oscar winning actors is always a wise choice. Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington (TRAINING DAY, 2001, GLORY, 1989) stars as Joe Deacon, a defrocked L.A. homicide detective banished to the California desert as a Deputy Sheriff in Kern County. “Deke” suffered a heart attack, went through a divorce, and lost his job as a result of being haunted by an especially grisly unsolved case. When Deacon is tasked to pick up evidence in Los Angeles, he stumbles into a case being worked by his hotshot replacement, Jim Baxter. Oscar winner Rami Malek (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, 2018) brings his unorthodox mannerisms to the role and soon (and unsurprisingly) the ‘old school’ and ‘next gen’ detectives are teaming up to work a serial killer case with (unsurprising) similarities to Deke’s old case.
Denzel is especially effective in the first half of the film. His Deke is a quiet man with extraordinary observational and listening skills, and he brings none of his patented histrionics to the role. Deke’s ‘little things’ process quickly identifies a suspect, and it’s a doozy. Oscar winner Jared Leto (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, 2013) is Albert Sparma, a greasy-haired appliance repair man (who let’s this guy in their house?) with a penchant for following news of the city’s crimes. Soon enough he’s taunting Deke and Baxter, and enjoying every minute of their frustration at the lack of evidence. It’s the cat and mouse game we’ve seen many times.
I’m a fan of retro movies, and Hancock announces upfront that this one is set in 1990. There are two reasons for this: that’s the era when he wrote the script, and it corresponds to a time when the Night Stalker was fresh on the minds of L.A. citizens. (side note: Netflix is currently showing the superb docuseries, “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer”). The idea of mismatched partners with polar opposite personalities is another aspect that we are quite familiar with, and Hancock even uses flashbacks to show us exactly what haunts Deke.
Supporting work comes from Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Glenn Morshower, Natalie Morales, and Michael Hyatt, with the latter two providing a non-victim female presence – although neither is given much to do. The most interesting aspect of the story is how Baxter is falling into the same emotional void as his new mentor, but unfortunately, not much time is devoted to this. In fact, the story has very little to keep us interested, and instead that burden falls to Washington, Malek, and Leto. Hancock has delivered a dark, brooding crime thriller that fails to deliver the thrills. It certainly pales in the obvious comparisons to David Fincher’s Fincher’s SE7EN (1995) and ZODIAC (2007), but is fine for killing time while stuck at home during a pandemic.
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