Stealing beauty

"Entrapment" is a sexy art-heist thriller -- until it goes for the cash.

Published April 30, 1999 4:30PM (EDT)

Art-heist movies are a naughty pleasure. In the stunning opening sequence of Jon Amiel's "Entrapment," a lithe high-tech thief -- wearing a cat suit and a sleek mutant-fly helmet -- ascends 70 stories of skyscraper, enters through a window, slips a Rembrandt from its frame and rolls it up so it'll fit in a mailing tube. The sneaky audaciousness of the act is bliss. And the sequence is so seductively shot by cinematographer Phil Meheux -- all bluish nighttime surfaces and glossy reflected lights, a nocturnal urban dream world -- that you feel helplessly drawn into the act, complicit. In real life, cracking the paint on a Rembrandt is a crime against humanity. But if you're going to commit a crime in your dreams, may as well make it glamorous.

It's too bad that the glamour wears off about halfway through "Entrapment," when it stops being a movie about art heists and starts being one about stealing (ho-hum) money. Thanks to Meheux, the movie is always wonderful to look at: It has a satiny, sleek look and the action sequences are crisply executed. But Amiel ("Copycat") isn't at his best here. It's often all too easy to see where the plot's headed; tiny holes and bigger ones open up under the story. And just too much about it seems anticlimactic, because the finale, big as it attempts to be, isn't as clever or as visually arresting as the one that the thieves plan midway through. It's the kind of sequence that makes you feel ready for anything, but in the end, "Entrapment" ends up giving you very little.

"Entrapment" is one of those who's-setting-up-whom thrillers, set in the last days of this century. Catherine Zeta-Jones is the gorgeous and brainy loner Gin Baker, an insurance agent who decides to go undercover to trap the person she believes to be the Rembrandt thief. That would be 60-year-old Robert "Mac" MacDougal (Sean Connery), legendary for splendid heists and other acts of derring-do. She tracks him down in London, spying on him with a pair of binoculars (good thing the less-discreet high-powered telescope wouldn't fit in her rental) as he sneaks into some high-tech company to lift a couple of multimillion-dollar computer chips just for kicks (he's a total gadget nut). He's onto her, though -- damned if those binoculars didn't tip him off! -- and by the time she returns to her hotel room, he's already lifted her luggage. Later, she wakes from a fitful sleep to find him sitting nearby in a chair, her gun in his hand as he quizzes her about her motives. Hoping to entrap him, she talks him into stealing a $40 million gold Chinese mask tucked away in a castle, and later dangles bigger game in front of him: an electronic-information heist that could net them billions.

There are racy flirtations between Gin and Mac along the way. First, he whisks her back to his swanky art-filled castle (he's a rich guy with fantastic taste, as evidenced by the Bacon painting that hangs, fittingly and beautifully, over his mantle) to train for their first heist together. From there, he sends his accomplice (Ving Rhames) out to buy a dress for her, and though we're supposed to think it's magnificent, the sashed monstrosity he comes back with is all wrong. When Gin tries to seduce Mac as part of her "work," he resists her considerable charms, telling her, "In order for there to be complete trust between thieves, there can be nothing personal." Well, where's the fun in that? The leads never get a chance to work up much charisma. Connery looks great, but his character has little to do other than look alternately smitten by and annoyed with Gin. Zeta-Jones put so much fire into her role in last year's wonderful "The Mask of Zorro" that it's surprising she barely ignites here. She's stunning to look at, but her voice doesn't have a rich enough timbre to match, and she tends to flatten all her lines, making her tough, independent-gal routine barely believable.

But Zeta-Jones does steal the movie in one memorable sequence. Trying to convince Mac of her smarts, she outlines a particularly outlandish theft -- even as she casually scales the wall of his living room and walks the length of a ceiling beam, tightrope-style, with the agility of a panther. She's also the focal point of the movie's most wonderful (and cleverest) scene. To practice before grifting the Chinese mask, she and Mac rig up a cat's cradle of red yarn, with a brass bell attached to the center of each length. The yarn is a simulation of the laser-beam system Gin will have to outwit to get to the mask: She must slither under and over the lengths of yarn without touching any of them. It takes her a few tries to master it, but when she knows she has it figured out, she challenges Mac to blindfold her. Then she makes her way through the maze, stretching and dipping like a cat maneuvering through the brush, arching her back and rolling her shoulders as she slips between the strings.

It's to Zeta-Jones' credit that a sequence designed to give the audience a view of her butt -- and what a butt it is -- also has some of the formal beauty of ballet. And when we see her execute it for real -- in the castle, where the laser beams are invisible to her and to us (but not to Mac, who has a device that allows him to see them) -- there's a goal at the end. Her eyes glitter as she lifts the mask from its pedestal: Now there's a prize. But the rest of the movie is just shenanigans: breaking into a high-security megabank in Kuala Lumpur, traversing a set of cables strung between two towers a zillion stories up, downloading a heap of crucial information in the span of 10 seconds, all just to steal a bunch of money. If you're going to go to all that trouble -- why not go for a van Gogh?

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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