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Watchability has gone missing

These days, I'm starting to get leery of movies that feature Michael Caine that aren't at least two hours long. (For every stellar bit of work he's done in "Batman Begins," there's always a "Bewitched.") I'm especially starting to get leery of movies that are remakes of Michael Caine movies that also feature Michael Caine that still aren't at least two hours long. (May I remind you he also co-starred in that lunkheaded version of his notoriously nasty gangster flick "Get Carter" that Sylvester Stallone headlined a few years back?)

The new revamping of "Sleuth" that Caine appears in is even shorter than the one he appeared in way back in 1972, which had him co-starring with the one and only Sir Laurence Olivier. A mere 86 minutes to the whopping 138 minutes laid on us the first go-round, this newfangled "Sleuth" omits several prominent things from the original. Watchability appears to be the most integral missing component.

Loosely adapted from the decades-old play by the late Anthony Shaffer, it is basically a two-man show. Famed novelist Andrew Wyke (Caine, playing Olivier's part) invites a young, struggling actor/chauffeur named Milo Tindle (Jude Law, once again taking a crack at a Caine role after the so-so "Alfie") over to his house for a proposition. You see, Milo has been having an affair with Wyke's wife, who is ready to leave her husband for the stud boy. And Wyke, knowing she won't be satisfied by his good looks and bedroom stamina forever, offers Tindle the opportunity to steal his jewels from him -- courtesy of a devious plan Wyke has set up, of course.

Things get twisty -- and, some would say, utterly daft -- from there in the second act. But you may already get thrown off by how actor/director/one-time wonderboy Kenneth Branagh directs the whole thing. Whereas Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed the original like it was a crafty, mischievous funhouse, Branagh directs his "Sleuth" like a cold, detached, video art installation.

He shoots from behind furniture and in front of window blinds. He films low-to-the-ground angles, as though as he is trying to capture hoity-toity up-skirt shots. And what's worse, he lights Caine and Law in the most ghastly way possible. (Caine has never looked so jowly.) Not to mention that the production design is just ostentatious; the security camera-covered house looks like a nightclub no one has bothered to set up an opening-night party for. (I kept expecting to see Steve Coogan's Tony Wilson from "24 Hour Party People" standing in a corner, dancing by himself like he's back at the Hacienda.)

But it isn't all Branagh's fault this movie is such a catastrophe. It takes more than one spoon to stir this mess. Not only does co-producer Law appear straight-up manorexic in this thing (ol' dude is starting to look more like Gwyneth every day!), his performance seems to be a carbon copy of Rik Mayall's snotty college poet from that BBC sitcom "The Young Ones." Meanwhile, the script, by legendary playwright Harold Pinter, takes the homoerotic subtext that was hinted at in the play (something Caine quietly lampooned in "Deathtrap") and makes it rampant in the third act, contradicting nearly everything you've just seen and completely driving the movie off the rails.

By the end of the movie, Caine and Law don't even resemble men anymore; they resemble a spiteful battle-ax and a kept brat. Kind of like a barely masculine version of Beryl Reid and Susannah York in "The Killing of Sister George." The macho, cunning game of one-upmanship and seething, deep-rooted study of class warfare that the play originally was gets lost.

All I can say now is, I can't wait to see Caine reprise his role as Alfred in the "Batman Begins" sequel, "The Dark Knight." It'll be nice to see him do some lengthy, manly work for a change.

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