“The Thomas Crown Affair” plays by the rules. A moderately diverting entertainment as sleek and aerodynamically sound as the glider its characters tool around in, it takes no extraordinary chances and delivers no major surprises. With one exception.
For though Pierce Brosnan, whose production company initiated the idea of remaking the 1968 Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway caper film with an eye toward his eventual starring role, it’s Rene Russo, his opposite number, who makes the most of this chance.
A former model, Russo has been in film for 10 years, holding down highly visible roles opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest male stars: Clint Eastwood in “In the Line of Fire,” John Travolta in “Get Shorty,” Kevin Costner in “Tin Cup,” Dustin Hoffman in “Outbreak” and Mel Gibson in two episodes of “Lethal Weapon.”
Yet it’s a mark of how little space is left for women in male-dominated studio films that despite all that screen time, Russo’s decade of sidekick-cupcake roles has never before given her the opportunity to create the kind of believable, engaging genre character she comes up with here.
Russo plays Catherine Banning, a smart, been-there insurance investigator for a major Swiss firm retained to look into the theft of a $100-million Monet from an unnamed New York museum that is a dead-ringer for the Metropolitan but, a prominent on-screen disclaimer insists, is a completely fictitious place.
“This is an elegant crime done by an elegant person,” Banning announces to the disgust of salt-of-the-earth New York police detective Michael McCann (Denis Leary), whose role consists exclusively of being exasperated whenever Banning says or does anything he wouldn’t have himself.
Banning’s candidate is in fact the man we have seen commit the super-elaborate heist in the film’s meticulous opening sequence, smoothly directed by John McTiernan of “Die Hard” and “The Hunt for Red October.” That would be Thomas Crown (Brosnan), a completely suave individual in hand-tailored suits who wagers $100,000 on a golf shot with the kind of aplomb James Bond uses to order the perfect martini.
But, despite all his wealth, Crown is no hero to his psychiatrist (Dunaway redux, in an uncertain cameo). She knows that he has issues with trust, that he may be successful but that he’s also a self-involved loner who has never met a woman he considers worthy of his regard. Which is why he is so tickled when he meets Banning, who tells him her suspicions straight away and boasts of always getting her man. Will she get him?, he wonders. “Oh, I hope so,” Banning all but purrs.
The opportunity for playful cat-and-mouse sparring is the reason “Thomas Crown” was worth the trouble of remaking. In fact, in an unusual maneuver, two writers with different skills were hired to do the script, with Kurt Wimmer writing the crisp heist sequences and Leslie Dixon doing the dicier but acceptable romantic dialogue.
Once Banning and the gentleman thief set their sights on each other, part of “Thomas Crown” turns into a tepid “Lives of the Rich and Famous” travelogue, as the pair go glamorously hang-gliding and jet off to his charming island hideaway in Martinique.
More diverting is the psychological duel between these two game players, both powerfully allergic to being played for fools and uncertain if they can be both true to their unbending personal codes of behavior and still trust another person enough to let them into their lives.
In this battle there’s no doubt that Russo, with a different hairdo that accentuates the angles of her face, invests her character with the most involving weapons. Her Catherine Banning, handsomely costumed by Kate Harrington, has a feisty self-confidence that’s capable of morphing into fury and flummoxing all the men in the immediate vicinity. It’s a star turn--complete with a sassy dance in a much-publicized Halston dress and even more publicized nude scene--that’s especially welcome because it comes from an actress who has not obviously been a star.
One of the things that keeps “The Thomas Crown Affair” from taking full advantage of that performance is that Brosnan plays Crown like a human ice cube: cold, brittle and slippery. This character makes Brosnan’s James Bond performances cuddly by comparison, and even McQueen, who was not the warmest actor going, registered as more of a recognizable human being.
Ignoring these limitations whenever he can, which is not always, McTiernan does a professional job of direction and delivers a civilized production that entertains well enough. And if this film’s ending is less willing to be ambiguous than the original, that’s just one more sign of the unadventurous movie times we live in. As if we really needed one.
* MPAA rating: R, for some sexuality and language. Times guidelines: some nudity and an athletic sexual encounter that starts on a staircase.
‘The Thomas Crown Affair’
Pierce Brosnan: Thomas Crown
Rene Russo: Catherine Banning
Denis Leary: Michael McCann
Ben Gazzara: Andrew Wallace
Frankie Faison: Paretti
An Irish Dreamtime production, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Director John McTiernan. Producers Pierce Brosnan, Beau St. Claire. Executive producer Michael Tadross. Screenplay Leslie Dixon & Kurt Wimmer. Story by Alan R. Trustman. Cinematographer Tom Priestly. Editor John Wright. Costumes Kate Harrington. Music Bill Conti. Production design Bruno Rubeo. Art director Dennis Bradford. Set decorator Leslie Rollins. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
In general release.