Sleuth (2007) / Mystery-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong language
Running Time:  88 min.

Cast: Michael Caine, Jude Law
Director: Kenneth Branagh

Screenplay: Harold Pinter (based on the play by Anthony Shaffer)
Review published February 9, 2008

Perhaps the biggest novelty of this second film adaptation of the Anthony Shaffer play comes through the casting of Michael Caine (The Prestige, Children of Men) as the older mystery author, Andrew Wyke, in this classic battle of the wits (Caine played the younger character, Milo Tindle, in the first film version).  Although the basic road traveled is the same in this version as it is in the 1972 classic, they definitely aren't heading toward the same destination.  While some of the developments do provide a certain element of interest, even if you're familiar with the original, director Branagh's (Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet) updating, penned by veteran screenwriter Harold Pinter (The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Handmaid's Tale), is a step down in practically every important facet.  I might even go so far as to state that there's not much reason for anyone to watch the movie except out of curiosity, but I would probably be discounting the legion of Jude Law fans their due.  If that's not you, I'd highly recommend picking up the Laurence Olivier version instead.

The premise is simple, though the plot is serpentine.  An aging writer of thrillers entertains a young man (Law, My Blueberry Nights) to his mansion in order to discuss the affair with the elder's wife, who wants a divorce he is reluctant to grant.  Through a series of circumstances, the author befriends the younger gentleman, getting him to consent to a deal that would net both men hundreds of thousands of dollars, but things aren't always what they seem.  What follows is a game of cat and mouse, but with role reversals, as it is never quite clear as to who is conning whom.

At under ninety minutes it flows by pretty fast, but parts of the film work better than others.  It works best in the opening gambit between Wyke and Tindle in an effort for the elder to seduce the younger into essentially incriminating himself for money, when all the while Tindle is actually setting himself up to his own slaughter.  In this fashion, Caine is at his most appealing, while Law is appropriately without a clue as to what is going on. 

The second part of the film involves a police investigation into the nature of what happened on the night in question.  It is here that disbelief must be suspended, as it is painfully obvious the policeman is actually Law in disguise.  The 1972 version was successful for being much more ambiguous, but here is where Branagh makes a fatal blunder in casting a pretty boy in the part, as it takes such a great effort to make him ugly, it doesn't look remotely believable. 

The third part of the film will probably make or break the viewing experience for many, as the seductive allure of the hunter/prey relationship takes on a literal meaning.  I won't spoil it except to say that Pinter's treatment suggests there is more than meets the eye in playing deadly games among men, as the two determine to hash out their differences in the name of continuing the game.

Sleuth does hold the attention and does deliver some decent titillation of a mental variety, sufficient enough to gain a recommendation with reservations.  The sterile look of the film (Wyke looks like he lives in a Calvin Klein ad) doesn't lend for a strong feeling of plausibility, which may be for the best considering how silly much of what happens becomes once the hands are played.  Perhaps adhering a bit more closely to the original work would have worked much better, and casting a better foil for Caine to play off of intellectually and physically (sorry Law fans, he doesn't pull the role off).  If you're a newbie, watch the original and enjoy every unpredictable moment before giving this glossy reworking a shot, if only to see why the play and film have endured over decades to entertain new audiences.

Qwipster's rating:

2008 Vince Leo