The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

D: John McTiernan
S: Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo

If the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair was slick, this contemporary remake from the unlikely hand of John McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard) positively glides across an immaculately polished surface. It is a fast moving, hugely entertaining take on its predecessor which adds to and enlarges upon many of the issues touched upon in 1968 by writer Alan Trustman and director Norman Jewison. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately depending on your point of view) it is also as well buffed up on a technical and spectacle level. The result is that the conflicting agendas which marred the original are back to wreak havoc here.

Bored businessman Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan; The Nephew, Tomorrow Never Dies) arranges the theft of a $100 million Monet painting, not because he particular wants or needs it, but because he's bored with a life of constant hedonism and an inability to connect with women (revealed in his confiding to psychiatrist Faye Dunaway, star of the first movie). Insurance investigator Catherine Banning (Rene Russo; Lethal Weapon 4) is brought in to recover it, and instantly knows who is responsible on pure instinct. Complications ensue when, in the process of finding evidence to prove it, she finds herself falling for him as they both realise they are kindred spirits who live by their wits and always do what is least expected of them.

There are serious concerns about the mindset of late twentieth century capitalists here which find voice unfortunately amid yet another example of advertisement for the lifestyle. Brosnan flies gliders, goes boating, owns a summer home on an exotic island, lives in a palatial mansion surrounded by the trappings of good taste and success which only capitalism can bring, and though we are meant to engage with his sense of emptiness, we can't help but wonder just what else he could possibly want when the world which surrounds him is made of nothing else. The 'out' is Russo, whose character is greatly enhanced from that introduced in the original. Her evident maturity and inner complexity provides Crown with a challenge worthy of his attention. When they meet as equals on the field both of professional and personal battle, Crown finds the very essence of life. She too then begins to doubt her chosen path to righteous destiny, and though the film reaches a natural ending which echoes the original, narrative comfort is provided by an artificial coda which assures us that once we have the money and brains to achieve success in capitalist America, we will always have a happy ending.

At the end of the day The Thomas Crown Affair is a slight caper film which, like its predecessor, offers glimpses of something else but never really concerns itself with them. It is perhaps slightly more successful than the original in at least drawing attention to the sub-texts, and scriptwriters Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer have done a good job of drawing out all of the characters, including Dennis Leary's police detective (portrayed in the original by Paul Burke). Equally though, it is arguably even more slight than the original in that the crime here is explicitly robbed of its importance by both the fact of it being the theft of art work (not a 'real crime' as Leary informs us near the end), and by the cheeky (if predictable) resolution provided to the theft plot. When the crime is inconsequential, so are the thematic preoccupations. In conventional dramatic terms, if the moral good is in no danger, why should we care about the antics of Kings and Princes? It is clear that 1990s America will not suffer change or loss as a result of the actions of these characters, and we are asked to engage only with the pleasure of execution.

On this level, it is a very entertaining film, and successfully takes on the task of remaking the original. In a sense it had the ultimate dream deal of the 'high concept' era, being able to take a great scenario and move it along one step further instead of merely playing with a vague idea. Produced by Brosnan's Irish DreamTime Productions, it was something of a gamble, but it is a winner. McTiernan (who worked with Brosnan on the long-forgotten Nomads) does nicely in a stylistic change of pace. Though he is given plenty of action scenes to work with, including the dynamic opening robbery and several subsequent, very businesslike cops and robbers bits, he also has to contend with romantic material of a kind not immediately associated with his work. He manges these well, and though there is no chess game, there is plenty of erotic charge. Brosnan is sophisticated and believable in the role of Thomas Crown, though he will never erase the memory of McQueen (nor does he try). Russo however does outshine Dunaway, and she meets up to the challenge of portraying the complexities of this character with some excellently judged facial gestures and expressions. The theme of enigma runs throughout the film (with constant, playful but perhaps over many references to Magruite's painting), and Russo manages to retain an air of mystery while provide us with enough human emotion to identify with. Brosnan plays on this note as well, but less successfully. He does inject a sense of humour which is welcome though, and commands the screen as he usually does. Leary is superb in support (as he was in Small Soldiers and Suicide Kings among other things). Those who have not seen the first will not suffer greatly, and though they will still find themselves faced with the dilemma of embracing the emptiness in the name of entertainment, it is less of an issue at the end of the decade in which profundity has been in short supply.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.