David Appleby, Sleuth Productions Ltd
Jude Law, right, struggles in a role Michael Caine, left, first played.
SLEUTH — ** — Michael Caine, Jude Law; rated R (profanity, vulgarity, violence)

It's still in question whether Jude Law really is "the next Michael Caine," as has been claimed, or whether he's just another talented pretender.

What isn't in question is that Law can't hold his own against Caine on-screen — at least not at this point in his career.

That's made painfully clear by the remake of "Sleuth," in which Law takes on a role originally performed on the big screen by Caine in 1972 — and acts opposite Caine, who's now in the Laurence Olivier role.

While the cagey old pro does manage to hold our interest throughout, Law badly flounders in the sort of vehicle that seems tailor-made for him.

Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Harold Pinter's adaptation of the Anthony Shaffer stage play is also surprisingly foul-mouthed. It follows best-selling mystery novelist Andrew Wyke (Caine), who's recently discovered his wife is having an affair.

So he calls her lover, hairdresser and would-be actor Milo Tindle (Law, who co-produced the film), to come to his country estate for a meeting.

Milo greets Andrew with the news that his wife wants a divorce. Andrew's not thrilled but agrees with one provision: He wants Milo to steal some pricey jewelry from his safe, so he can collect the insurance money.

Things aren't that simple, though, and this supposed conspiracy turns into a deadly cat-and-mouse game, as each man tries to one-up the other.

Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos have tried to "open up" Shaffer's originally stage-bound story by using camera angles shot from the perspective of security cameras scattered around Andrew's house.

Unfortunately, it feels like a gimmick and isn't that interesting visually. And when the spotlight leaves Caine, our interest level peters out. The talky second half, in which Law takes center stage, is filled with increasingly ludicrous twists and turns.

"Sleuth" is rated R for strong sexual language (profanity, vulgar slang terms and other suggestive talk), and brief strong violence (brawling, gunplay and a violent fall). Running time: 86 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com