What's most surprising about the sleek, soulless Sleuth is that director Kenneth Branagh doesn't trust in the power of two actors to hold an audience's attention. He's got Michael Caine and Jude Law firing on all cylinders, yet the first half is overwhelmed by gimmicky camerawork (from dizzying overhead shots to entire scenes shown via surveillance monitors) meant to distract from the fact that Sleuth is a talkfest at heart, a ferocious mind game between very different alpha males trying to outwit each other and inflict the maximum humiliation in the process.
The 1972 film version of Anthony Shaffer's play (directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) contained a strong undercurrent of fear about the changing nature of English society. There, an upstart hairdresser and son of an Italian immigrant, Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), challenged aristocratic crime novelist Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier), whose noble detective reflected his need for rigid order and servility. They were supposed to be fighting over a woman — Andrew's wife became Milo's lover — but their parlor game quickly descended into all-out class warfare.
In this adaptation, playwright Harold Pinter shaves nearly an hour off Shaffer's script, and creates a lean, mean battleground for the dueling Alfies (Caine in 1966 and Law in 2004), one that's devoid of any social context and focuses on the preening egos of classless characters engaged in an elaborate pissing contest.
The only title held by the new Andrew Wyke (Caine) is Master of Menace: He's a self-made success who turned his mystery novels into a cottage industry. Milo Tindle (Law) is now a marginal actor who specializes in portraying brutal characters and believes he's on the cusp of greater success.
Pinter relishes the ensuing clash between these gladiators, whose primary weapon is their ability to read other people, and Branagh constructs their 21st century arena in an 18th century English manor house. Inside, it's a gray minimalist bunker, with hard edges and ruthless efficiency that reflect the film's unforgiving mood.
Changing cinematic mores means that Branagh can amp up the story's inherent sadism and homoeroticism. Yet this Sleuth feels like little more than an overblown acting exercise. But it does provide Caine, who has been relegated to paternal supporting roles, the opportunity to unleash his still formidable acting powers. Having played both Tindle and Wyke with veracity and vigor, Caine gives Law's generation an amazing lesson in strength, resilience and constancy to his craft.
Opens Friday, Nov. 2, at Landmark's Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.