' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

Friday, June 09, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

“That island isn’t Manhattan.” 
“It’s not?” 
“I have appointments.” 
“Wanna keep ‘em?”

Although John McTiernan’s 1999 remake of the 1968 “Thomas Crown Affair” is billed as a romantic thriller, it comes across more like a fantasy, if not quite the way we typically think of fantasy, with magic and make-believe worlds. No, the fantasy pertains to the world we live in, where the eponymous acquisitions tycoon cum art thief (Pierce Brosnan), naturally, has a corner office with a view of the East River looking toward Governors Island and a Martinique villa in the Caribbean. That’s the island referred to in the exchange above, between Crown and the insurance investigator, Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), hot on his trail, or maybe just hot for him, or maybe both at once. That question about keeping appointments, however, proves less practical than existential, him inviting her, in a manner of speaking, into his world where anything goes all the time.

The jocular key is established immediately with a group of thieves getting inside The Metropolitan Museum of Art after hours by way of a literal trojan horse intended for an exhibit. Their target: Monet’s Sunset at Venice, though they are ultimately outfoxed for it by Thomas Crown himself, letting them do all the extravagant legwork before slipping in at the end to take it for himself, which would be a hysterical metaphor for the billionaire class getting rich off the backs of others if the satire wasn’t simply subtle seasoning on a rich dish of no holds barred fun. The detective sent to investigate is wrong every step of the way, as such movie detectives typically are, but is smartly cast as Dennis Leary who brings a weary yet winking countenance to the role, a guy who knows it’s his place in the world to get played for a dupe by the rich and famous. Besides, it’s not really his case, which Leary communicates in his character’s behavior too, but Catherine’s, who can bend the law in ways he can’t and is smarter anyway. From the moment she watches through a window as Crown skips to a waiting car, we know that she knows it’s him, and so rather than an investigation about Did He Do It?, it’s an investigation of Will They Do It? and will she, to paraphrase Norah Jones, Go Away With Him In the Night. Stakes? You want stakes? Baby, those are stakes.

Crucially, McTiernan and his screenwriters, Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer, honor the joie de vivre of such stakes in the frivolity of their storytelling, in which expository dialogue between Crown and Catherine becomes indistinguishable from foreplay, and a primer on Sunset at Venice’s pricelessness becomes explicitly priced to a gaggle of schoolkids who are indifferent until they are told the value of the painting, all suddenly oohing and aahing, burgeoning P&L-obsessed business executives, every one of them. No scene, however, is more frivolous and fantastic than Crown capsizing a catamaran in New York Harbor in a reckless act of derring-do. Catherine watches through binoculars from a nearby boat, spying on him, the moment when she deduces this dude would totally want to steal a painting for no other reason than high adventure. That is to say, this sequence, the most gargantuan one in the whole movie, is character building, taking what could have been summarized in a sentence – “Crown is devil may care” – and then crashing a catamaran to live it out, a moment in which character and director become virtually indistinguishable.

That blurring of lines is just as true of Crown and Brosnan, the latter an actor who was born to walk across the screen, which I mean as the biggest compliment I can muster, moving not quite with a purpose but cocksure nonchalance, manifesting the gait of a man who thinks – knows – the world is his oyster. He wears his clothes the same way, not just the suits, but the white linen shirt in Martinique, too, which had me Googling Pierce Brosnan White Linen Shirt in Thomas Crown Affair. Brosnan only runs into trouble, as does the movie, when it tamps down the light-heartedness to make a play at serious questions about brewing betrayal between Crown and Catherine. 

Then again, it might just look worse because of how good Russo is, giving a performance that makes me want to time travel so I can stump for it as one of 1999’s best. She moves throughout the movie, whether walking into police headquarters or breaking into Crown’s apartment, with the same kinetic flair as she does in her and Brosnan’s dance scene, investing every behavioral choice, every line reading with an off-kilter playfulness. The best part of the suspenseful climax, in fact, is not so much what happens as Catherine realizing what happens is happening, which Russo marks by having Catherine lick her lips. So many movie characters these days feel inanimate, programmed, but as played by Russo, Catherine Banning is one movie character who truly relishes being alive. 

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