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Remix of 'Sleuth' is clever, but no fun

Michael Caine (left) and Jude Law in Kenneth Branagh's version of the 1972 movie 'Sleuth.' Michael Caine (left) and Jude Law in Kenneth Branagh's version of the 1972 movie "Sleuth." (DAVID APPLEBY/SONY PICTURES)

What director Kenneth Branagh and playwright-turned-screenwriter Harold Pinter have done to 1972's suspense drama "Sleuth" isn't so much remake it as remix it. The new version is a shiny piece of hardware that might as well be called "Sleuth 2.0," and it's exactly what you would expect from Pinter: very clever, extremely cold. Maliciously entertaining, too, until the halfway point, when you suddenly start wondering why anyone should care.

The original film, directed by Hollywood legend Joseph L. Mankiewicz from Anthony Shaffer's hit play, was pure gimcrackery: a two-character, two-act fake-out about headgames turning lethal. It starred Laurence Olivier as an aging crime novelist and Michael Caine as the younger actor in love with the older man's wife, and it stuck defiantly to the source's one-set, real-time structure.

So does the new "Sleuth," with the added gimmick of letting Caine play the older role this go-round: Andrew Wyke, a hugely successful pulp writer known as "the Master of Menace." Arriving at the door of his remote high-tech mansion one evening is Milo Tindle (Jude Law), a pleasant young chap who demands that Andrew grant his wife a divorce. "We're in love," he says, which the novelist thinks is about the funniest thing he's ever heard.

And so the games begin. Andrew makes a proposition to the penniless actor that involves a home break-in and theft; beyond that I will not go other than to acknowledge that this is just the top layer of the onion and that Milo gives as good as he gets. The pleasure of "Sleuth," in all its incarnations, is almost purely mechanical - the buzz we get watching the pranks revealed in their escalating complexity is similar to solving an Agatha Christie mystery or finishing a particularly difficult crossword. It's soulless but fun.

Except that this "Sleuth" gradually becomes soulless and no fun, and what's the point of that? Pinter has stripped down the dialogue and replaced it with Pinterese: shallow, ambiguous, pregnant with imminent violence. There's comedy in this: A line like "Are you all right in elevators?" is so loaded you have to laugh, and Law and Caine lob the initial scenes back and forth with crackle and wit.

The first act still holds water; it's when the action takes a brief recess and (warning: spoilers follow) returns with a character in disguise that "Sleuth" starts leaking. Disguise works onstage but almost never in the movies, and it's so patently fake here that it throws the film off balance.

Are we supposed to know? Is the other character supposed to know? The movie's ambiguity starts feeding on itself, and as the filmmakers amp up the playfulness and homoerotic subtexts, "Sleuth" turns away from the audience and becomes increasingly hermetic and impossible to take seriously. Branagh fills the screen with mirrors and other duplicitous surfaces; while he's fiddling about Law has nothing to do but overact. (Caine, by contrast, has been here before and knows the value of underplaying.)

The film's third character is the technological castle keep Andrew lives in, or rather the production design by Tim Harvey that fills it. Surveillance cameras are everywhere; walls and aquariums slide this way and that. Everything's a gray, metallic sheen - a new domestic Brutalism that reflects the blood- lust under the characters' cultivated exteriors.

It's such a great set that it ends up more interesting than the people in it. Pinter's "Sleuth" wants to be about the macho gray area between games and sex and war, but when the arena upstages the gladiators, something's gone amiss.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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Sleuth

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Harold Pinter, based on the play by Anthony Shaffer

Starring: Michael Caine, Jude Law

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 88 minutes

Rated: R (language)

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