By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 10, 2007 04:00 AM
Jude Law, Michael Caine, ...
Credit: David Appleby

When Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, in the 1972 screen version of Sleuth, indulged in their poison-tipped war of words and wit, setting traps that just opened up into further traps, it played as a feast of acting — or, at least, a feast of British hambone exhibitionism. I’m not sure if anyone needed a new version of Sleuth, yet here it is, with Anthony Shaffer’s play retooled by Harold Pinter, and the whole thing set in a cobalt-blue fascist-designer mansion. It’s like Deathtrap crossed with Cribs as staged by Stanley Kubrick.

In the new version, which has been directed by Kenneth Branagh with ripe theatrical malice, Caine, flashing those menacing choppers, takes over Olivier’s role as the wealthy crime novelist who seeks revenge upon the man who stole his wife. Jude Law is the cuckolding scoundrel. Even with Pinter’s salty upgrade (lines like ”You’re the man who’s f—ing my wife!”), the material seems stagier than ever. In the first section, which features nifty vertiginous top-down camera angles, it’s obvious that Caine is setting a trap for Law, and when a runty policeman shows up to interrogate Caine about Law’s disappearance, only the gullible will fail to pick up on why this cop smells a little fishy.

But give the new Sleuth this: The two actors don’t just feast — they tear and bite into the unctuous nastiness of their roles. Law, who in recent films has threatened to vanish inside the placidity of his coppery beauty, here shows a more reckless and dynamic side — a gigolo sleaziness that looks good on him. (He should call himself Lewd Jaw.) And Caine, a canny old lion, knows how to wrap each scene around the joyful snarl-and-pause of his rhythms. Pinter has added an explicit homoeroticism to the last phase of the duel, and it works nicely, not because this is really a sexual drama, but because the gay angle teases out the true theme of Sleuth. These two enemies are so addicted to their evil gamesmanship, to the grand artifice of theater, that they need each other even more than they hate each other. That’s love, British hambone-style. B