There’s no law that says a remake has to be stupid.
“Sleuth,” the original screen adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s two-character stage play about a tense face-off between two men over a woman, was highbrow entertainment back in 1972, with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine as the loquacious combatants. Actor-producer Jude Law’s 2007 remake is every bit as verbally sophisticated as the earlier version, but in keeping with 21st-century updates of classic movies, it’s a nastier piece of work entirely.
It’s also a self-conscious bit of blue-chip branding, an actors’ picnic expanded into a sort of writers’ “Bohemian Grove” campout.
Law, who co-produced with five other fellows, including director Kenneth Branagh, cast himself as Milo Tindle, the deceptively reticent young fop (complete with thumb ring and flamenco boots) who calls on aging, best-selling author Andrew Wyke at the latter’s country home for a showdown over Wyke’s wife, who has become Milo’s mistress.
Law enlisted veteran actor Caine — the first film’s Milo — to portray Andrew, then upped the ante by getting Harold Pinter, perhaps England’s finest playwright since Shakespeare, to rework Shaffer’s play.
Renaissance man Branagh (“As You Like It,” “Henry V”) then came on board to direct. The Law-Caine-Pinter-Branagh foursome pretty much guarantees a bracing 86-minute romp through minefields of dialogue, but it takes chances with material, and those chances pay off.
Wyke’s house is a chilly and forbiddingly elegant 18th-century pile, outfitted with security cameras and decorated in concreteminimalist style. You wouldn’t want to live there. Inside this gloomy fortress, surrounded by mementoes of the “Master of Menace,” Milo seems lost in the first few rounds, reeling from Andrew’s verbal jabs at the younger man’s Italian heritage and his status as an out-of-work actor.
Andrew proposes a “steal the jewels” scheme, a slapstick role-playing game involving ladders, a skylight, and a safe. Milo falls for it, but then the games get rougher and the younger man’s stamina kicks in.
Law is in top form throughout, spinning a transparent web of deception over his older rival with disguises, street savvy, and a scene of homosexual flirtation that picks up where his Dickie Greenleaf in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” left off. Wily Caine has never been handier with the barbed comebacks.
Pinter, the true master of drawing room menace (“Betrayal,” “The Servant,” “The Homecoming”) serves him well. The English preoccupation with social class plays less of a part in the 2007 version, mostly because Caine’s cockney accent is light years away from Olivier’s haughty tones, but also to reflect the idea that these days, money is the only measure that really counts. “Sleuth” probably won’t make a lot of it, but art-film audiences will find themselves wishing the game would never end.
Starring Jude Law, Michael Caine
Written by Harold Pinter, based on the play by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes