The characters in “The Thomas Crown Affair” are cool — too cool, in fact, for the film to develop much of a pulse. This redo of Norman Jewison’s 1968 Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway hit is an ultrasleek and slick thriller that attempts to justify its existence by shifting the focus from the caper elements to the psychological and emotional factors that compel two hard-shelled professional adversaries to risk a romantic entanglement. Result is lush hot-weather entertainment that should generate solid late-summer B.O. with mostly older auds, although alert viewers may sense that they’ve recently seen much the same scenario played out in “Entrapment.”
While it still retains a certain allure due mainly to the adept casting of the innately rebellious McQueen in the role of a Boston millionaire and gentleman thief, few popular films from the late ’60s seem more dated and mannered today than the original “Thomas Crown,” with its hokey split-screen storytelling and high-gloss polish that has since faded to reveal the tinniness of what’s inside. A considerable overhaul was definitely in order if Alan R. Trustman’s original script was going to be made to fit the ’90s.
In an unusual move to this end, Leslie Dixon was hired to write the personal scenes, while Kurt Wimmer was engaged specifically to pen the heist sequences. Combo works seamlessly, with the intimate story, such as it is, framing the action and maintaining the upper hand.
Signaling the revised orientation at the outset, precredits teaser has the handsome, richer-than-rich playboy tycoon Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan) nonchalantly revealing his Achilles’ heel to his shrink, played in a self-reflexive homage by Dunaway. Crown is a self-made man who’s got it all but can never imagine settling down with one woman because he simply can’t open himself up enough to trust anyone; what works for him in business is anathema to deep personal involvement.
This time out, risk-loving title character pulls not a bank job but the rather extraordinary theft of a $100 million Monet from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art virtually in front of the eyes of security personnel. Along with Detective Michael McCann (Denis Leary), insurance company investigator Catherine Banning (Rene Russo) is positive that Crown is the culprit, and the sultry, no-nonsense femme has no qualms about using any means necessary, including getting horizontal, to land her prey.
Like her elegant foe, Catherine is quite a hard case; she’s undoubtedly snared many men in this same manner over the years, and is perhaps both proud and weary of the fact that she can no longer find one who is her equal. Both Crown and Catherine suspect they might have met their match in the other, and the only sliver of substance served up here is the figurative chess game (a metaphor famously made literal in the original film) between the two, in which the question of who will outfox the other becomes dependent — thanks to their growing personal involvement — upon who will finally “weaken” emotionally and trust the other.
The twists and turns of their relationship are not without interest, especially because Russo takes seriously her rare opportunity at a part more substantial than her usual superstar pairings; when one of them finally lets down well-built defenses and is the victim of turned tables, the result is momentarily affecting. But not for long, as contempo Hollywood has trouble abiding the note of ambiguity and irony that even a successful mainstream production such as the original “Thomas Crown” had no trouble concluding upon 31 years ago.
The impulse to take the characters deeper seems to have been there, but it’s been nipped in the bud; despite all the time they spend together, hanging out at Crown’s art-festooned Manhattan townhouse or on a quickie vacation to Martinique, they devote all their time to keeping up their guards and taking off their clothes. Lack of detailed characterization is hardly a fatal flaw in this sort of genre piece, but the absence is especially noticeable in light of the story’s heightened attention to the nuances of the central romance.
The art removal (and replacement) sequences at the Met are cleverly and engagingly handled under John McTiernan’s well-tooled direction, and production has been lavished with extravagant sets and locations that welcome the audience into a fantasy world of untold luxury and wealth, which lenser Tom Priestley shows off to the desired effect. The stars look mighty good both in and out of Kate Harrington’s costumes, and their au naturel couplings, while stylized, generate a sense of rambunctiousness.
Taunting, teasing and challenging as a worldly woman who sees a possible chance to change her ways, Russo rolls up her sleeves for this part and comes off very well. Brosnan’s Thomas Crown is carved out of ice, and, unfortunately, thesp’s charisma is insufficient to melt it much. The cold calculation of this suave, ruthless operator is efficiently projected, but any inner desire to change seems a ruse or self-deception. In the only supporting role of consequence, Leary is mostly called upon to register exasperation at Catherine’s greater success rate at getting the goods on their mutual foe.
Bill Conti’s score, while trying for something different, ends up jarringly eclectic. The original’s Oscar-winning tune, “The Windmills of Your Mind,” by Michel Legrand, Marilyn Bergman and Alan Bergman, is heard in several versions.