What do you do when people get in the way of your happiness and your ambition? You kill them, of course. Graham Marshall (Michael Caine) discovers this easy solution by accident when an angry, physically intimidating homeless man in a subway demands respect. Perhaps this hits too close. Respect was what he wasn’t getting at home or at work. The vagrant, an obvious failure in Marshall’s eyes, won’t go away. A train and a little shove, not intended to kill — though it did — and poof, problem solved. Now, on to other problems, larger, more irritating problems at home and at work.
In Shock to the System, based on the novel by Simon Brett, Caine plays an understated Don Draper, a man trying to advance in an advertising firm full of duplicitous, ass kissing executives. The first death seems to light the way to the a dormant gene in Mr. Marshall’s constitution. He didn’t know he, who seemed to have a relatively mild, plodding personality, actually possessed the mind of a cold-blooded manipulator. He not only discovered this hidden talent, but now delighted in exercising it. The cast — Elizabeth McGovern, Swoosie Kurtz and Will Patton — is solid, and the small, smart story is told well. Is it possible to eliminate so many obstacles and not get caught? We shall see.
Michael Caine makes so many films, he has to make some of them twice. Sleuth is based on Anthony Shaffer’s award winning play. In the 1972 film, Caine played the younger of two characters in what turns out to be a deadly pissing match. Lawrence Olivier played the older man, attempting to recover from the humiliation he felt at the theft his wife’s heart. In 2007, the film was remade and updated, this time with Caine as the aging crime writer and Jude Law as the young actor or hairdresser (we’re not quite sure), who proves to be surprisingly adept at countering the sophisticated writer’s capricious, seemingly deadly moves.
What we have here is a stylish, mannered and fascinating two-person play in a stunning high-tech home, the third star of the film. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay and Kenneth Branagh directed. Watching a cerebral and cunning Caine and a clever and outrageous Law going at each other is as good as it gets, a genuine championship bout.
A Shock to the System is a fine undercard to Sleuth, which is clearly the main event.
Scotch would work as an accompaniment to the evening. Martinis are probably too American for either film. This is a British battle. By the way, both films, especially the claustrophobic Sleuth, work well on home screens.