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‘Alfie’ now belongs to Jude Law

He manages to make the Michael Caine classic his own. By John Hartl

While accepting an Oscar for “The Cider House Rules” a few years ago, Michael Caine paid tribute to Jude Law, as if he were passing the torch to another gifted British actor. So it seemed fitting that Law would recreate and update Caine’s breakthrough 1966 role in “Alfie,” which earned Caine his first Oscar nomination.

The result is one of those rare remakes that treats the original with respect yet finds its own valid tone and emphasis. Some things have been softened, others have grown harsher, but it’s all a matter of degree, reflecting the fact that the story has moved from swinging mid-1960s London to contemporary New York.

Caine’s proudly promiscuous Alfie was a womanizer who openly referred to his “birds” as “it” rather than “she” or “her.” Callous as he was, he did shed tears over an abortion, and he revealed his vulnerability when one of his less dependent lovers ditched him. Most of his girlfriends were doormats; some were just less mopey than others.

The women are more resourceful in the new version, and Law’s Alfie plays down the insulting pronouns. He’s more impish, more openly manipulative, and something of a scamp until his misdeeds catch up with him.

The original “Alfie,” which was produced when abortion was illegal, remains one of the strongest anti-abortion statements in film history. In its less assertive, more politically correct way, the remake makes a pro-life case as well.

The new version was directed and co-written by Charles Shyer, best-known for his equally faithful remakes of “Father of the Bride” and “The Parent Trap.” Once more he follows the structure of the original, allows for a few necessary detours, but always returns to what worked the first time around.

As before, Alfie takes the role of “your host for the evening” as he talks to the camera, describing his sexual adventures as he participates in them, and offering a running commentary on souring relationships and how to get out of them. Marisa Tomei, Jane Krakowski and Sienna Miller all make vivid impressions as women who get dumped, while Susan Sarandon, replacing Shelley Winters from the original, steals all her scenes as the one woman who chooses to do the dumping.

Too bad her last line is delivered as if the character cared. It’s a sentimental touch that seems out of place in “Alfie.” Winters delivered the same line with a selfish flourish that helped define the true nature of the relationship. There are other missteps in the new version: Asian stereotypes, gay stereotypes, a jarring end-credits song (fortunately, it gradually gives way to the catchy title tune from the 1966 film).

Still, this is a glorious vehicle for Jude Law, who’s in nearly every shot and effortlessly charms his way though what must have been a difficult role. He’s just as confident talking to the camera as Caine was, and he makes Alfie’s gradual transformation credible without too much preaching.