What is it with doing remakes of classic Michael Caine films? Haven’t they learned by now? We’ve had the glossy but utterly facile Jude Law-starring remake of Alfie, which singularly managed to remove any of the easy cool and charm from that wonderfully misogynistic character, and ripped out the deep sense of melancholy at the heart of the original film in the process. We’ve had the truly abysmal, almost sacrilegious remake of the glorious Get Carter, with Sylvester Stallone making Caine’s cold-heartedly distraught mob killer on a revenge trip into an overweight and pathetically mumbling joke.
But, argue the makers of this remake of the 1972 Michael Caine versus Lawrence Olivier thriller, this is not really a remake. Oh no! It’s a reworking of the original play on which the 1972 movie was based, not a remake – honest! Even though we did bring back Michael Caine to take on the Olivier role this time around, and made the inexplicable decision to bring Jude Law in to take on the part Caine originally played, despite his dire performance in Alfie.
But wait – the director of this adaptation from the stage is none other than Kenneth Branagh, the man who has done more than anyone since Olivier to help bring Shakespeare to the masses through his numerous film versions of the Bard’s works. If there’s a point to doing yet another production of Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing, why not another version of a well-respected modern play? To add to the impression of the earnestness of the “this is not a remake” claims, Branagh has even brought in Harold Pinter, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005 and arguably the most prominent English playwright of the last half century, to re-write the script.
So, despite the personal dislike any Caine fan has for Jude Law after the Alfie debacle, looking at this entirely fairly, Sleuth boasts two A-list British actors in the lead roles, an A-list British director with a strong track record of producing interesting interpretations of existing material, and an A-list writer polishing the dialogue and plot for modern audiences. With that sort of talent on board, this has got to have some promise, right?
Well yes, there is much promise here. With this much talent, it’s hard not to have heightened expectations even with a remake of a classic. After all, all-time classic 1941 film noir The Maltese Falcon was a remake, as was The Magnificent Seven. It is possible to do these things well.
Caine is on the usual good form he’s somehow managed to recapture in recent years after his late 1970s and early 1980s wilderness years of making films like Jaws IV and The Swarm, though there is a hint of the autopilot. Branagh does a decent enough job behind the camera, albeit one that seems to indicate that this actor-turned-director is trying to get more visually interesting in his directorial style, yet hasn’t quite got the aesthetic sense to pull it off. But though Pinter’s script has some wonderful lines of dialogue, the plotting is merely adequate, as is Law.
So why the sense of failure when the film is by no means a disaster? Perhaps because of our own expectations. But it’s hard not to get the sense that the filmmakers themselves were sucked into the same trap of thinking that with an array of A-list talent a good movie’s bound to be the end result. Sadly, as anyone who watched Ocean’s Twelve could have told them, that’s not necessarily the case.