Mark Kermode - A poor substitute

Jude Law's cuddly customer is no match for the sexy original. By Mark Kermode

Alfie (15)

When it comes to the tricky business of remaking movies, the smart money is not on desecrating established classics, but on having a bash at material that wasn't particularly good the first time around. Think of David Cronenberg's radical reinvention of the creaky horrors of The Fly, or Steven Soderbergh's ultra-slick update of the originally stodgy Ocean's Eleven. In both cases, the manifest shortcomings of the source material actively benefited their remakers, who were left free to fashion stylish silk purses out of celluloid sows' arses. Far more foolish are the efforts of those who take their knives to the sacred cows of the cinematic canon, such as Gus Van Sant's pointlessly blunt remake of Psycho, or Marcus Nispel's flatulent rehash of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Worse still are those transatlantic updates that attempt to reposition dustily hip Brit-pics for a modern international audience by relocating them across the pond.

In this area, Michael Caine's back catalogue has suffered more indignities than most, with Sylvester Stallone trampling the big man's legend underfoot in an unforgivably awful stab at Get Carter, and Mark Wahlberg notably failing to blow the bloody doors off in a yankeefied rerun of The Italian Job. Now, adding insult to injury, we have the home-grown star Jude Law taking an Americanised sideswipe at the title role of Alfie, in which he plays a cheeky Brit abroad on the streets of New York, whose similarity to Caine's original begins and ends with a wink and a haircut.

As most NS readers will doubtless remember, the original Alfie (directed by Lewis Gilbert in 1966) was a viciously misanthropic affair cleverly disguised as a sexy rake's progress in which writer Bill Naughton explored the edges of modern misogyny. Most shockingly, Caine's Alfie referred to his female conquests as "it", making us complicit in his rancid ramblings through mesmeric straight-to-camera monologues that both charmed and shocked the audience. In Caine's company, we learned some genuinely unpleasant truths about the hollowness of male sexuality, and were forced to come face to face with the raw consequences of his character's callousness.

Law's Alfie, who also speaks directly to the audience, is a far more cuddly customer all round, his cheery lecherousness bespeaking nothing more threatening than a wide-boy sense of infantile irresponsibility. This time, the "it" word is invoked in connection with "relationships", one of which gets an unexpected leg-up after Alfie enjoys a one-night stand with his best friend's girl. While back-street abortions in grim London settings provided the dark heart of Naughton's script, rewriters Elaine Pope and Charles Shyer have given their boy little more to deal with than the socially awkward consequences of his own in-ability to "commit" - to friends, male or female. So breezy is the tone, in fact, that even a misguided sub-plot about potential penile cancer descends into camp gaggery, as a briefly impotent Alfie gets a stiffy in the hands of a Germanic doctor who seems to have wandered in off the set of Eurotrash. Presumably such humour was considered risque by the writers; sadly, the nudge-nudge tone seems more outdated than updated.

There are moments of relief from the silliness of it all, most notably in the scenes involving Susan Sarandon's voluptuous fiftysomething vamp, whose randy life appears far more interesting than Alfie's. If only we were watching a film about her. Elsewhere, the women are poorly served, with Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei getting very little to do other than simper and cook, while Sienna Miller pouts and struts in the manner of an oft-defrocked clothes horse, presumably providing something for the Loaded readers who never viewed the original as even vaguely ironic.

Meanwhile, in the background, two wrinkly rockers, Dave Stewart and Mick Jagger, roll out a succession of mawkish AOR ballads, the Greek chorus-style lyrical majesty of which includes such clunking couplets as "there's nooo de-nying it, nooo de-crying it/ah feel like an add-ict, ah've jerst gotta . . . have it" (surely "have ict"?). "There's a stylistic, thematic and visual vibe throughout this film that Mick and Dave have perfectly captured," says director Shyer. "I believe audiences are going to connect with their music in a very personal way." Yes, and I believe I'm going to come over there and slap you in a very personal way if you don't stop talking like a bloody therapist.

In the end, however, that's exactly what is wrong with the remodelled Alfie. Whereas the original film walked and talked like a dangerously disreputable hustler, this bastard offspring comes on like a caring-sharing kid in need of nothing more than a big hug. Maybe today's anaesthetised viewers will take such an anodyne substitute to their hearts. For those who like their romantic comedies to pack a rather more sardonic punch, it's heartbreakingly empty stuff. What's it all about? Sadly, nothing much.