"The Thomas Crown Affair"

Glamorous settings, glamorous clothes, glamorous sex: This remake is a deluxe vacation for adults, frills included.


Charles Taylor
August 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

"The Thomas Crown Affair" seems to take its cues from Bill Conti's score: It's sprightly, frisky and unexpectedly playful. Conti clears away the bombast that usually clutters his music just as director John McTiernan has cleared away the depressingly familiar clichis of big-budget entertainments. "The Thomas Crown Affair" may turn out to be the most entertaining American movie of the summer, and there isn't a car chase, a shootout or -- unless you count a few smoke bombs -- an explosion in sight. In other words, McTiernan pays the audience the supreme compliment of thinking they'll be kept awake by wit and sexiness and the allure of his two stars, Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, both of them shot like the most irresistible items on the most tempting dessert cart imaginable.

Part caper picture, part cat-and-mouse romance, this remake of the 1968 picture starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway is closer in spirit to what the Bond movies used to be. It's a deluxe vacation for adults with all frills included: glamorous settings, glamorous clothes, glamorous sex. As exotic settings go, New York might seem pretty pedestrian, but the city has put on its best fall colors for Tom Priestly's camera. The residential streets are leafy, inviting rows of brownstones, the avenues bustling and made for strolling. There are a couple of spectacular views, showing New York shot in a way that I've never seen before. One, from an airplane at night, recasts the metropolis as all glowing amber lights. In another, seen from the ocean, the city skyline peeks out of the mist enveloping the shore. That's not a bad touch for a movie whose hero is devoted to Monet -- so devoted that he heists one of the artist's most famous paintings.

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Brosnan's Thomas Crown is an acquisitions exec who acquisitions a Monet for his private pleasure. Russo's Catherine Banning is the insurance investigator out to recover the high-toned swag and snag herself the tidy recovery fee. She pegs Crown as the culprit early on and doesn't bother to hide her suspicions from him. The fun of the movie is seeing these two thrust and parry, slipping out of the traps each sets up for the other and not bothering to hide how turned-on they're getting. That turn-on is as much over their own craftiness as each other. Crown and Catherine are supreme egoists and they'd be monsters if they weren't so sleek and stylish and so entertained by their whole cop-and-robber pursuit. Sex and work and trickery amount to pretty much the same thing for this pair, and their immense self-satisfaction is the source of both the movie's sense of humor and its sex appeal. Their flirtation never abates even after they become lovers. Crown and Catherine are mirror images of each other, as Crown's shrink (Dunaway, who looks great and seems to be having a high old time) tells him. Brosnan and Russo cloak their performances in the best kind of irony, not the hip, superior variety, but the sophisticated sort -- they're capable of being amused at every pickle they land themselves in. The movie gets just a tad soggy when Alan Trustman and Kurt Wimmer's script has the leads anguish over how they can trust each other. But those slack patches never last for long, and soon Crown and Catherine are gleefully working out some new way to trip each other up, some new form of seduction that will utterly disarm the opposition.

Delivering James Bond's trademark witticisms, Brosnan always seemed in on a joke he isn't willing to share with the rest of us. Thomas Crown is, if it's possible, even more self-involved, but Brosnan shows more wit, and in an odd way, a lot more generosity than he ever has before. And he seems, for once, to be in on the joke of his own absurd handsomeness. He regards himself with the same detached slyness with which he regards everything else. He's got the lightness that the hero of a romantic caper movie needs and the slight reserve that fits this character. (Which is one reason McQueen didn't work in the original: The role allowed him none of the regular-guy likability he showed in his best performances.) If Brosnan doesn't give a truly memorable performance, he's never less than fun to watch.

If nothing else, Russo's performance should, for a while at least, silence the people who complain that older women are never allowed to be sexy in the movies. That sexiness isn't just due to the transparent black dress she wears in one scene or the wonderfully unself-conscious way she displays her fabulous body in the nude scenes. Russo's sexiness springs from the insinuation she works into her line readings, the way she moves, the way she wears her stunning wardrobe (some of which was designed for the movie by Michael Kors). It's hard to recall any woman in the movies as spectacularly dressed as Russo is here. She wears a series of knee-length coats and matching skirts or dresses, cashmeres and leathers and suedes that define luxurious; they're so soft and supple they move with her. And the performance is an example of what's possible when you cast an actress as a glamorpuss. Russo has been a pleasure in movies like "Tin Cup" and "Ransom." But she's never been as ravishing as she is here. Imagination seems no match for the sort of naughty fun promised by every mischievous curl of her lips.

As the cop in charge of the case, Denis Leary makes a decisive break with all the faceless actors littering the original (and so does Frankie Faison as his assistant). Leary brings just enough of an edge to his decent regular-guy cop to keep the character from seeming like a baked potato. And his small speech to Russo about the woman who left him gives the movie a trace of heart while never risking self-pity.

As you might expect, "The Thomas Crown Affair" is bigger and glitzier than the original, which was directed by Norman Jewison. Unlike most remakes, McTiernan's version is superior in every way. Jewison's film had all the accouterments of style with none of the kicky fun. It was glacial and fragmented, much of it shot using a "now!" multi-image technique. It's like what Alain Resnais might have come up with if he'd been hired to shoot one of those "What kind of man reads Playboy?" ads.

From the credits (a tricky clue to the movie's final twist) to the fade-out, McTiernan is out to pamper us with cleverness and swank. The opening set piece, a boring bank robbery in Jewison's film, has become a fleet, intricate heist carried out in broad daylight in the infinitely more photogenic surroundings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a set). Deftly executed and edited (by John Wright), the sequence plays like a luxurious tickle. And McTiernan tops it in the finale, which returns to the Met and features bowler-hatted figures right out of Magritte crossing and crisscrossing the galleries under the eyes of hopelessly muddled security officers. Part of the reason the movie feels so refreshing is that we're not used to seeing big-budget entertainments that don't dumb themselves down, that take the almost adolescent appeal of thievery and luxury and sex and make them seem like a sophisticated adult treat.

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For someone who's made his career in big-budget pictures, McTiernan has occasionally shown a knowing irony about the movie business. In "Die Hard," the exteriors of the office skyscraper that gets trashed by Bruce Willis and the terrorists was the spanking new corporate headquarters of 20th Century Fox, the company that released the movie. Seeing this shiny anonymous new building go kaboom played like a joke on the willingness of the studios to destroy themselves for a hit -- like the old story about the exec who said of a star, "If he wanted to burn down the studio, I'd hand him the matches." The best joke in "The Thomas Crown Affair" comes when a schoolteacher is trying desperately to interest a group of bored kids in a Monet; they perk up only when she tells them it's worth $100 million. It's like seeing a meeting of future studio execs.

McTiernan has made a movie that knows money by itself is rather dull; the fun lies in what you can do with it. Granted, a Monet has a lot more worth (not just financial) than a Bulgari necklace or a private hilltop villa in Martinique. But the baubles, and the genuine treasures, here are never an end in themselves, they're always a means to fun. Crown cares more for pulling off the heist than owning the Monet. If style is the truest morality there is in movies, the thing that can get us rooting for a thief (or even a killer) if he or she has enough savior faire, then "The Thomas Crown Affair" is, by movie standards, impressively moral. It's delicious.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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