The Thomas Crown Affair Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan

Director Norman Jewison's "The Thomas Crown Affair" was a European-style caper film that pitted a suave, upper-crust bank robber against a stunning and resourceful insurance investigator. Though the light script left much to be desired, including a number of glaring gaps in logic, this 1968 film left an memorable impression on audiences because of the undeniable chemistry between its two leads, matinee idol Steve McQueen and the fetching Faye Dunaway, which heightened the romantic tension of the film's cat-and-mouse plotting. The other saving grace was Jewison's sense of style that permeated the production, including a number of memorable shots, such as a set-piece involving the use of multiple frames to document several points-of-view during the film's pivotal bank heist scene. Fast-forward thirty-one years later, and "The Thomas Crown Affair" has returned to theaters, albeit in a more contemporary form. Despite the addition of some clever sequences and a script that fleshes out the relationship between the two protagonists, the remake fails on what made the original so compelling-- chemistry.

The film begins during a daring daylight art heist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Though the would-be art thieves have a number of high-tech tools at their disposal and an elaborate getaway scheme in place, they are thwarted by the alertness of wealthy art patron and millionaire tycoon Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan of "Tomorrow Never Dies"), and are promptly arrested. However, it becomes readily apparent that the brazen theft attempt was merely a smokescreen orchestrated by Thomas to carry out his true objective-- to spirit a rare Monet worth $100 million out of the museum amidst the confusion.

The aftermath of the heist sees the arrival of NYPD detective Michael McCann (Denis Leary of "Small Soldiers") and Catherine Banning (Rene Russo of "Lethal Weapon 4"), a savvy insurance investigator whose cunning is only surpassed by her good looks. Though McCann sees the attempted heist as an open-and-shut case with the arrest of the suspects, Catherine is convinced that the Monet was the true objective of the heist, and is determined to find the mastermind behind the plot. As her investigation deepens, Catherine's gaze falls upon Thomas, who not only was an eyewitness to the heist, but also happens to have a penchant for the paintings of Monet.

Wasting very little time, Catherine quickly insinuates herself into Thomas' life, and makes it very clear to the millionaire that he is her number one suspect. As she toys with her the suave art thief, she soon finds herself falling under his spell... or is it merely a ploy to have Thomas let down his guard? Thomas also seems to be enchanted by the inviting investigator... or is he merely toying with her to derail the investigation? As the film's second act reaches the halfway point and the cat-and-mouse game escalates, the displacement of loyalties begin to take their toll on Thomas and Catherine. Feeling torn between two conflicting objectives, they each see a win-win situation as utterly unattainable, and feel compelled to play their respective roles to the bitter end.

Though the original film benefited from the terrific on-screen interaction between Dunaway (who makes a throwaway cameo in the new film) and McQueen, the dialogue-light script chose to leave the relationship between the two adversaries sketchy at best, and focus more on their cat-and-mouse game. With the new film, the mind games between burglar and investigator have become integrated with the romantic aspect of their relationship, and a number of scenes expand the level of verbal sparring between the two characters, which also doubles as flirtation.

Unfortunately, even with the additional banter, a number of problems prevent this remake from surpassing, let alone equaling the original. First of all, Brosnan and Russo lack the on-screen chemistry to make their mutual admiration and respect convincing. A number of their scenes together are cold, with their interchanges appearing scripted and lacking the spontaneity necessary to illustrate their deepening relationship. In comparison, even though McQueen and Dunaway had some awkward moments in the 1968 film, the attraction was not only readily apparent between their two characters, but it was hypnotic. A more recent film that does an impressive job in building a powerful dynamic between two romantic leads would be last year's "Out of Sight".

Interestingly enough, this latest version of "The Thomas Crown Affair" features much more overt sexuality than the original, including Russo's much-talked-about nude scenes. In comparison, the steamiest scene in the original was a noteworthy chess game that featured a number of lingering glances, a long kiss, and some sexual innuendo, such as Dunaway stroking the head of a bishop before making her move (which was parodied in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me"). Director John McTiernan, better known for his work on "Die Hard", never seems to capture the romantic tension between the two characters, and despite showing more on-screen, he fails to capture the essence of what Jewison implied back in 1968.

Part of the problem with the on-screen romance is the development of Russo's character, which evolves in fits and starts. When we first see her, she is an icy and determined investigator, who will stop at nothing to win, including breaking the law. However, somehow along the way, she begins to fall in love with him, and is willing to let her quarry get away. How does that happen? Very few hints are dropped along the way providing any sort of motivation for her character, let alone a plausible explanation as to why she would fall under Thomas' spell. And without a sufficient exploration of what makes Catherine tick, her subsequent actions throughout the film seem inconsistent and arbitrary.

On the other hand, the script of the remake has added some new complexities, including a memorable denouement caper with some inventive twists and clever plotting. The original film's climax was essentially a condensed rehash of the opening heist, and it was a pleasant surprise to see at least one aspect that surpassed the original. The newest version also features a less ambiguous ending than the original, which brings the tricky relationship between Thomas and Catherine to a somewhat satisfying close (though it would have been better if the relationship had been handled more adeptly earlier on).

Though certain aspects of "The Thomas Crown Affair" remake surpass those in the original, the essential element that made the original so compelling, the chemistry between its two leads, remains elusive here, and the end result is muted. As in the case of "The Haunting" and "The Out-of-Towners", two other recent remakes, lightning doesn't strike twice.

Images courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer. All rights reserved.

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