For all its high-tech bells and whistles, director Kenneth Branagh's modernization of the 1972 black comedy remains a remake we could live without, especially when it takes a serious turn for the worse.
In the original Sleuth, Laurence Olivier's cuckolded crime novelist engaged in mind games with Michael Caine's callow hairdresser. Now it's Caine turn to torment the young man who's sleeping with his wifeonly Caine's in possession of a state-of-the-art surveillance system to help him beat down Jude Law. Acclaimed playwright Harold Pinter reportedly never saw Joseph Mankiewicz's original film, and consequently his retooled Sleuth is somewhat more grave in tone than its predecessor. Pinter also rewrote the dialogue, which explains the introduction of R-rated language to what was previously a PG-friendly affair. Beyond those changes, Sleuth closely follows the original to a point. Caine's Andrew Wyke invites Law's part-time actor Milo Tindle to his country house under the pretense of amicably discussing his wife's request for a divorce. Wyke's not willing to expedite the divorceunless Tindle pretends to steal a fortune in jewels from his safe. It's a win-win situation, Wyke argues: the penniless Tindle can fence the jewels to fund his wife's extravagant lifestyle, and Wyke can keep the insurance money. Tindle goes along with the plan, even though he suspects it's a trap. And he's right. Wyke just wanted to trick Tindle so he has a justifiable reason to shoot his rival for his wife's affections. A few days later, though, the police arrive at Wyke's home. Suddenly, the tables are being turned on Wyke. Pinter preserves Sleuth's big twist, but then he foolishly adds a homoerotic subtext to the third act that's pointless and unconvincing.
Michael Caine is not the refined thespian Laurence Olivier was, but that works in his favor. With his steely gaze, devilish grin and intimidating presence, Caine relishes the moments he physically and psychologically tortures Jude Law's Tindle. Hidden behind Caine's well-chosen words and expensive attire is a street brawler whodespite his agecould rip Law apart with his bare hands. Accordingly, there's never a moment in Sleuth when you don't think Caine isn't in control, even when Wyke's seemingly caught in his own trap. And you're left with impression that Caine's teaching Law a lesson or two in acting for daring to take on his old role. Luckily, Law's up for the challenge, though the nature of the material requires him to constantly be on the defensive. But as Tindle learns the rules of Wyke's game, a delightfully slick and charming Law proves he has what it takes to engage in cat-and-mouse games with an old pro like Caine. And that's when Sleuth is at its best. Nothing beats the sight of Caine's master manipulator and Law's ever-smiling pretty boy verbally sparring with each other, at least while Sleuth is being darkly comical. Still, after tackling Caine's roles in remakes of Alfie and Sleuth, Law should quit riding his mentor's coattails and concentrate on building his own resume. Let's face it, the prospect of Law hooking up with Adam Sandler for a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels update is just too horrible to contemplate.
As with Gus Van Sant's misguided attempt to outdo Alfred Hitchcock with his version of Psycho, Kenneth Branagh's Sleuth feels almost like a scene-by-scene remake of the original despite the occasional flourishes. The main difference is that Branagh chooses to emphasis Sleuth's sinister side, stripping the story of much of its playfulness. Branagh and Harold Pinter also retain the second act's big twist, which eliminates the element of surprise for those who have seen the original. Unfortunately, the twist is telegraphed so well in advance that anyone watching Sleuth for the first time will quickly figure out what's about to happen. And that renders Sleuth somewhat impotent. Branagh's does bring Sleuth into the 21st century with the introduction of various high-tech gadgets that Wyke employs in Tindle's burglary of his home. But watching the action through security monitors doesn't add much to the fun and games. Perhaps the greatest change Branagh makes is to go all HGTV on Wyke's English stately home. He takes out the Country Life furniture and fixtures one expects to find inside a spacious country house in favor of a modern minimalist décor that's severely lit for obvious dramatically effect. The claustrophobic confines of Wyke's abode certainly heightens the tension, but it also makes Sleuth feel stagier than the original. Add this makeover of Wyke's home to the proceedings' lack of mischievousness and what you have is a Sleuth that sadly is no longer a celebration and a spoof of all things Agatha Christie. And where's the pleasure in that?