Fans of the 1972 version of “Sleuth” will not enjoy the new version unless they accept beforehand that it is not a “remake” so much as a “re-imagining.” The same basic story is there, with the same basic twists and surprises, but the tone is different. The new version is sleeker, more streamlined, and more menacing than playful. It’s also 45 minutes shorter.
Kenneth Branagh, taking a break from Shakespeare, directs the new one, with a screenplay that’s been adapted by Harold Pinter from Anthony Shaffer’s stage play. More musical chairs: Where the original was primarily a two-man operation starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, now Caine plays the Olivier role with Jude Law in Caine’s old shoes. (Yes, Law has already done a Caine remake, “Alfie.” No, I don’t know what the deal is with Jude Law and Michael Caine.)
The story is set entirely in the ultra-modern, dimly lit home of Andrew Wyke (Caine), a successful crime novelist with a fascination for gadgets and electronics. There is high-tech surveillance everywhere (and Branagh often shoots the actors from that point of view), with an abundance of nifty things like sliding walls and hidden rooms.
Wyke has requested a visit from Milo Tindle (Law), a struggling young actor who, we soon learn, has been having an affair with Wyke’s wife, Margo. Wyke will grant her a divorce, but only if he’s certain he’ll be rid of her for good — and given Tindle’s poverty and Margo’s fondness for extravagance, he suspects she’ll come crawling back to him and his money before long.
So Wyke has a proposal. He wants Tindle to “steal” some of his diamonds, fence them, and use the money to support Margo. Wyke gets the insurance money, so he’s not out anything, and Margo will be out of his hair.
But of course the plan is not as simple as it sounds, nor is everyone as forthcoming about their real intentions. Tindle and Wyke are playing games with each other, and discovering what the games are, who’s playing them, and whether any of them are lethal is the fun of the story. This is diminished somewhat if you already know the facts from having seen the original (or the play it’s based on, which is still produced now and then).
Yet there is still a lot of enjoyment to be had in these two meaty performances, with rich, clever dialogue by Shaffer and Pinter. Wyke and Tindle are smart men; their dialogue can be coy or blunt, depending on the moment, and neither man is ever far from a moment of explosive rage. They battle with their wits, their words, and their voices, only occasionally resorting to more physical methods of violence. To put it simply, they’re just fun to watch, that’s all.
It wouldn’t work with lesser actors. When a police inspector (played by Alec Cawthorne) appears in the second act, your reaction is “Hey, who’s this interloper?!” Caine and Law approach their roles with theatrical enthusiasm, not to mention a great deal of real talent. They have the chemistry of a seasoned pair of professionals. Devotees of the original (which earned Oscar nominations for Olivier and Caine) may be appalled to see it changed in any way, but on its own terms it’s pretty entertaining.
B+ (1 hr., 26 min.; )