Crime procedurals are a dime a dozen on television. In forty minutes we can get a set up, surprise reveals, a fake lead, a new piece of evidence and the case wrapped up with a soul searching song over the titles. So why do we need a movie like this? There are a couple of reasons and they start with the main leads. You have three good actors who can make the story work without feeling as if you are being rushed through things. These three men bring something to the table that you will not get in episodic television.
The main star is Denzel Washington, who adds gravitas just by showing up. Of course Denzel never just shows up, he invests himself in his roles. Here he is playing a pretty conventional character, the world weary detective who is burned out by the years of exposure to the horrors of the world. Writer/director John Lee Hancock adds an ambiguous backstory to layer the morality of Officer Joe Deacon's mission. On the same track but many years behind, hotshot homicide detective Jimmy Baxter overlooks the warnings he gets from former colleagues of Deacon's, in order to get a handle on a case that has him stymied. Rami Malek is all wide-eyed intensity as he starts to see the case from the old timer's perspective. The third side of the triangle is provided by a suspect, who screams his guilt without ever providing any evidence. The way Jared Leto smirks as Albert Sparma, the suspect who denies killing anyone but acts as if he knows everything about what is happening, make you want to punch the character yourself.
Our story opens with a crime being executed but blocked along the way. That sequence is suspenseful and pulls us in, but in the big picture it has little to do with the main process. It comes up at one point, mainly as another complication for the investigators rather than a piece of the puzzle that will answer their key questions. That sort of thing is the main thrust of the story. Lots of little things point to the involvement of the subject, but all of them leave the case short of a definitive outcome. The leads are not false, they simply stop short and that is what is driving the two investigators to the edge.
As in all films of this type, the "criminal" is smarter than he would ever be in real life. The politics of the police department are impenetrable. The main detectives are flawed in ways that undermine their position but also makes them good cops. Once again, my hometown of Los Angeles, provides an atmospheric background for the story, with assists from Kern county, Ventura, and one wordless shot at an Alhambra restaurant, that fills a modern story (one set in 1990) with depression era noir tones. In the process of baking this, the cake fell and it doesn't come out as well as it should, it is however still tasty.