As if to reinforce the Alfie remake’s suggestion that Jude Law is his generation’s Michael Caine, Sleuth casts Caine himself opposite Law, who has the role Caine played as a young actor in the 1972 original. Still, the main passing-of-the-torch ritual here is between directors Joseph L. Mankiewicz to Kenneth Branagh. A static wordsmith who ladled the original with misjudged visual flashes, Mankiewicz finds an ironic heir in Branagh, whose fondness for Shakespearean verse never stopped him from swamping it with ostentatious camerawork. Branagh’s mise-en-scène this time around is spartan next to the dig-this-shot excesses of Hamlet and Love’s Labor Lost, complementing Harold Pinter’s adroitly condensed adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play. As in the original, however, the film is a sly but empty pas de deux between two men, fabulously rich mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Caine) and avid hairdresser Milo Tindle (Law), brought together for a battle of wits that, precipitated by Milo’s seduction of Andrew’s wife, begins as quick-witted one-upmanship but promptly escalates toward the lethal.
It’s tempting to call the new Sleuth a soulless remake, but that would imply that the original had a soul. What the 1972 film did have, however, was a culmination of sorts of Mankiewicz’s epigrammatic worldview, in which wit was literally turned into a deadly weapon. Branagh ditches Mankiewicz’s bric-a-brac of artifice in favor of sleek techno-minimalism—even with the addition of several Pinteresque pauses, the new film is 50 minutes shorter than the original—and in the process merely exposes the project’s fatiguing reliance on cleverness. Pinter posits a new queer strain between the two rivals, but to Branagh that’s just another item in the film’s bottomless trunk of tricks, as glittery and coldly tasteful as the necklace Andrew contrives to have Milo steal in order to gleefully take revenge on him. What keeps the film’s motor running is the interplay between the two actors. Law has the opaque agility of a cunning scam artist, but it’s Caine’s look of bemused wryness (the way he sizes up his younger co-star as if to say, “I was you once, kid”) that almost makes one believe there’s something remotely human at stake in the picture’s vacant ingenuity.