It's not often that an aging, established screen legend literally passes the torch to a young upstart in the industry, but I can't think of any other way to describe the handoff that's occurred between Michael Caine and Jude Law. In the 2004 remake of 'Alfie,' Law was cast in the title role that scored Caine a Best Actor nomination in 1966 original. Despite the remake's chilly critical reception, Law must have impressed Caine enough to warrant another remake and another chance to fill Caine's shoes. This time the two appear on screen together in 'Sleuth' -- a revamp of the 1972 film of the same name that saw a young Caine go toe to toe with Laurence Olivier himself.
In director Kenneth Branagh's rendition of 'Sleuth' (adapted by Harold Pinter), an eccentric novelist named Andrew Wyke (Caine) enters into a dangerous contest of wits with an unemployed actor named Milo Tindle (Law). It seems the young lothario ran off to London with Wyke's wife, but has returned to convince the old man to finalize his divorce. In spite of his cocky swagger, Milo is taken aback when Andrew agrees to his demands and offers him an enticing proposition. After his intense greed overpowers his common sense, Milo foolishly enters into a deadly game of cat and mouse with the wealthy millionaire. Yet three gunshots later, the story takes a sharp turn towards the surreal as Andrew is suddenly subjected to his own brand of torment.
'Sleuth' starts off strong with an incredibly tense first act. Caine and Law are ablaze with assurance and obsession, anchoring every scene with their daring performances. Thankfully, their sharp banter and terse retorts are merely the tip of the iceberg -- the competition that spills onto the screen belongs as much to the actors as it does to their characters. With each underhanded remark, the performers invest their souls into their characters and manage to transform a rather long-winded script into a murderous contest of wills. To their credit, Caine and Law's performances nearly make 'Sleuth' worth the film's 90 minutes.
So what goes wrong? The film downfall begins with a painfully transparent plot twist at the forty minute mark that sent me into fits of laughter. Not only did I instantly see through the filmmakers' shoddy ruse, I felt insulted by their attempts to disguise such an obvious "surprise" for an additional twenty minutes. Within seconds, I was so distracted by the ham-handed nature of the storyline's new direction that I could take nothing serious. If Andrew is such a brilliant manipulator over the course of the first act, how is he suddenly struck with such unbelievable blindness and stupidity a few days later? Are we to believe that this eccentric genius can't make a simple deduction? By the time the second act "reveal" was in full swing, I felt completely divorced from the characters, it no longer mattered who won this frivolous game of mental chess.
Although the script had legitimately roped me in with its story and dialogue, I suddenly found myself apathetic to the plight of either character. Frankly, I wished Andrew and Milo would just shoot each other and leave me wondering why the credits were rolling thirty minutes into the film. Caine's aggressive titan devolves into a sheepish cuckold, while Law's naïve dreamer abruptly becomes a calculating sociopath. Meanwhile, the script abandons a genuinely intriguing character study for a cheap plot lifted from every straight-to-video thriller on the shelves. If the film had extended its first act, eliminated its ridiculous second act, and jumped straight into the finale, I would probably be singing its praises.
The original 1972 'Sleuth' is dreadfully campy when compared to this cold, dark remake, but it at least had the good sense to maintain its narrative flow from beginning to end. Branagh's 'Sleuth' is so infatuated with the nature of its twists and turns, that it forgets to prioritize the logic of its story and the natural development of its characters. I'd like to say that I stumbled onto something special here -- that Branagh didn't settle for the same thriller clichés we've seen time and time again. Unfortunately, I have to recommend staying far away from this mangled mess of cinematic over indulgence.
As dark and bleak as the film is somber and joyless, 'Sleuth' features a respectable 1080p/AVC transfer that renders the claustrophobic confines of Andrew's shadowy mansion with ease. The steely palette is rife with blues and grays, but skintones are quite natural and primary splashes really pop. Blue spot lights, purple jewels, and red sculptures look bold and stable in high definition, interrupting the otherwise monotonous color scheme. Luckily, the transfer's fine object detail shines, even when the imagery becomes mundane. Facial textures are remarkable -- individual pores, split hairs, and frayed stitches are clearly defined and three dimensional. There are a few instances in which certain shots aren't as crisp as the rest of the film, but this softness appears to be the result of inconsistencies in the original print rather than in the transfer itself.
'Sleuth's heavy darkness worried me at first, but I'm pleased to report that the transfer is devoid of artifacting, compression issues, and edge enhancement. In fact, my only ongoing complaint is that grain and noise frequently bunch up in scenes flooded with intense color. Skip to the last scene in the film and pay close attention to Michael Caine's close-up -- notice the garbled noise swarming in the red light on his face? This strange anomaly occurs throughout the film and serves as a constant (albeit minor) distraction. Regardless, anyone looking to pick up 'Sleuth' should be satisfied with this vivid, above-average effort from Sony.
'Sleuth' relies on an impressive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/ 16-Bit) that packs a startling punch for an otherwise quiet, conversation driven film. Dialogue is clean and well prioritized, realistically bounding around Andrew's mansion by using each surround channel to its full potential. As it stands, echoes and ambient effects are especially convincing, allowing the listener to effortlessly immerse themselves in the audible experience. Dynamics are also an aggressive element in the mix -- low-end bass pulses punctuate the soundscape with authority, while stable violin trills embolden the psychologically strained atmosphere of the film. If I have any minor nitpick, its that the LFE channel seems a bit too eager at times. Although I'm sure it's the result of an intentional directorial decision, voices tend to sound unnaturally loud during particularly intense scenes.
All in all, the TrueHD track included on 'Sleuth' may not make this a reference disc you can pop in to wow your friends, but it's an entirely capable mix that faithfully recreates the theatrical experience. Fans will certainly be pleased.
The Blu-ray edition of 'Sleuth' includes all of the supplemental content that appears on the standard DVD, upgraded to high definition no less. Alas, the information quickly grows repetitive and I found my finger poised on the fast forward button.
'Sleuth' just didn't do it for me. Michael Caine and Jude Law deliver a pair of stirring performances, but fail to prevent the story from collapsing under the weight of its own pretentious twists and turns. As a Blu-ray release, the film fares a bit better -- it features an above average video transfer, an unexpectedly strong TrueHD track, and a decent collection of supplements. Even so, I would approach with caution and give this one a rent long before you shell out much of your hard earned cash.