Three great actors and a decent premise, but you’ve seen it before.
It’s 1990 and a woman has been murdered in L.A. Disgraced former detective and current deputy sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) is called in to collect forensic evidence and notices similarities to a serial murder case he worked on. Along with lead detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), Deacon searches for a man who is out murdering prostitutes in California. The two begin to investigate local man Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who shows an interest in Baxter and in serial murder.
This movie’s getting beaten up a bit by critics and, honestly, it’s easy to see why. I’ve tried not to read them too much, but one of the general comments I’ve seen repeatedly was that the film seemed like a rehash of Seven. Having now watched it, I disagree. I don’t think this film necessarily feels like Seven, since it lacks the criminal mastermind, religion, or even elaborate killings elements, but I also think it’s really that this film doesn’t do anything to set itself apart from most films about police chasing a murderer. Yes, the performances by the leads are all great, but the killer isn’t particularly interesting and the pacing on the revelations throughout the story is too slow. Even the final character moments of the film don’t really do much to win it back.
Naturally, the performances in this movie are great. Denzel Washington does a great job of portraying Deacon, whose past is already made up of moral compromises. This gives him a perspective on policing than the more arrogant and fame-hungry Baxter, but ultimately also gives him a bit of a cooler head. Rami Malek walks the line of being likable throughout the film and you never quite know how much of his motive is genuine altruism and how much is his desire to advance his career. Jared Leto’s portrayal of Sparma is especially interesting. While he’s a jerk, you are never sure throughout his early scenes if he is the killer or not.
Like I said, the movie largely just runs through the beats of every film that’s like this. There’s an optimist cop and a grizzled cop trying to find someone. Almost all of Washington and Malek’s interactions are so by-the-book that I was surprised it was written by John Lee Hancock, who did The Blind Side and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. However, it fell into place a little when I found out that he wrote this in 1993, before Seven came out and caused Hollywood to flood the genre for the last three decades. So, part of it is just that this film might have been ahead of its time if it had come out when it was written, but instead it feels derivative. Timing is everything, I guess.
Overall, since the last point I want to address requires a spoiler, I’ll just say that this movie is not great. If you’re a big fan of Denzel, you can probably watch it. Otherwise, it’s just a little too slow and a little too long.
The ending to the film, had it been built-up properly, might have been great. At the end of the film, Baxter accidentally kills Sparma after Sparma claimed he’d show him where a victim was buried. Right before dying, though, Sparma tells Baxter that he’s just been messing with the policeman and that he’s not a killer. Deacon tells Baxter to bury him and forget, then sends him a piece of evidence that would supposedly prove Sparma was the killer… only for it to be revealed that Deacon faked it. Sparma might have been innocent and there’s still a killer out there. This kind of ambiguity and the moral defeat on Malek’s face at the end of the film could have been great, but instead it just feels hollow.
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