An Updated, Not Improved, "Sleuth"
But Michael Caine Is Always Worth Watching
San Jose Mercury, 19 October 2007
They've gone and done the 2.0 thing on another fondly remembered 1972 movie, "Sleuth." This remake isn't as radical as last week's "Heartbreak Kid" redo. But it's similarly unsatisfying.
The new production is kind of a zero-sum game. What works in its favor also tends to work against it. Primary example: Knowledge of the earlier film helps us appreciate key aspects of this one, yet familiarity with Anthony Shaffer's gimmicky script and source play undercuts whatever suspense the new version might generate.
In hopes of freshening things up, much has been changed by director Kenneth Branagh and Harold Pinter, who wrote the remake's screenplay after a lifetime of somehow avoiding exposure to the theatrical war horse (although the Nobel laureate did read Shaffer's text before penning his adaptation). As might be expected from Pinter, this version of two-man gotcha is meaner, more psychologically cogent and implicitly gayer than others.
But the new script doesn't make this "Sleuth" any more engaging, or any less synthetic.
This edition's big draw is seeing Michael Caine, who played the younger man in '72, essay the older role originally filmed by Laurence Olivier. Caine is delectably malicious and conniving as Andrew Wyke, the wealthy mystery writer who hosts his runaway wife's young lover in his high-tech English manor house.
Yet there's little enigma to the character, even when Pinter gives him some very odd behavioral gambits in the third act. From decades of watching him create expert sleazeballs, we've learned not to trust anything Caine does on-screen. Olivier lulled and lured more easily. Jude Law, who was also an initiating producer of this project, plays the young actor Milo Tindle. He thinks his pimp bluster can convince Wyke to grant his wife a divorce, not suspecting that the old plotter intends to humiliate and scare him away - or worse. But "Sleuth" being about one-upmanship, and Pinter being all about relational power shifts, Milo fights back with a devious ingenuity of his own.
What didn't work for Caine in the first film doesn't work for Law here, but he does effectively deploy snotty seductiveness and wounded pride.