Sunday, March 1, 2020

Heist Watch: The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

Watched:  02/29/2020
Format:  HBO
Viewing:  Second or third
Decade:  1990's

Back in the 90's, in an era where not every movie needed to kick-start a franchise or go for Oscar gold, sometimes you'd just have an entertaining movie.

It's been years since I last saw The Thomas Crown Affair remake from 1999, then 31 years after the release of the original - which I didn't see until the last ten years, but I recalled liking the 1999 edition, even if I did not feel like I needed to have it in my DVD collection.  Stars Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo are charismatic and effortless in their parts, the story isn't a mind-bender, but engaging, and the supporting cast - while distinctly 90's-ish in stance and dialog, works well around our leads.

I'm not sure this is the world's most amazing film, but when the take on movies for adults usually deals with pridefully mannered period pieces or weepy melodrama (in both the best and worst sense of the word), The Thomas Crown Affair managed to deliver a genre picture about adults of a certain age, intellect and drive - and get through roughly two hours and feel like the writing and performances lived up to the promise of characters of a certain age, intellect and drive.  It's a tough thing to put your finger on, because clearly movies come out all the time starring or about people of a certain age, means, etc... but this movie does something that both makes the characters buyable as to what they're supposed to be, but also leaves a bit of distance between the characters and audience - it doesn't care to make them relatable.  They aren't.

At the end of the day, the movie is more romance film than heist film (that is not a complaint), and so it's doubly interesting to watch a romance when the point of the characters is that they're outsiders by virtue of the fact they're working comfortably in what most of us consider to be the red zone, what we consider challenges is, for them, a Tuesday for them.  The movies devoid of of meet-cute's and adorable moments for mere mortals - and instead becomes a game of chess as both have their pieces on the table, but don't know what the other will do.  It's also a Hollywood movie - and I recall this being a big deal at the time of the film's release - that acknowledges (and shows) sex occurs between people over 40.  Which feels perhaps less surprising in the era of television we're in, but there's no HBO branded awkwardness or badness to the sex.

A huge part of the film's ability to work in this realm hangs on Russo's portrayal of Catherine Banning, an insurance investigator sent to New York when a wildly valuable Monet is stolen from the Met.  The movie makes only a gesture toward explanations or excuses for Banning's state - she's mercifully not pitched as lonely or a career-driven shrew.  She doesn't complain to girlfriends or make excuses to an unseen mother on the phone.  The same "I happen to be an ubermensch, and that makes it hard to find someone with whom I wish to spend my evenings" thread that we follow with Crown is directly reflected in Banning.  For every bit of his attempt to seduce and puzzle out what Banning will do, she's given an equal and reflective move, sometimes striking rather than playing defense.

I will not lie, Russo is dead sexy in this movie - and after watching Brosnan play Bond for a few outings, it's interesting to him spar in a non-Bond role with a woman who will also use seduction to get close to her quarry.  Because the character is not a one-note Bond-girl, the real drama of the movie is found in how the two reconcile their competing interests and figure out - after a lifetime of deception and playing cards close to the vest - how do you work this out when you finally find someone who can keep up with you?  It's an interesting ride.  But maybe that Bond "girl" is the key to difference - Russo's Banning is portrayed as an adult woman, and it's a curious difference in how the character exists on screen and one not seen enough in Hollywood film of the past couple of decades.

The original film, starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, deals with a more straight-forward crime, the heist is for cash.  And, arguably, Dunaway's character is pitched as having insight but not quite the equal and foil that Russo's Banning stands for in regards to Brosnan's Thomas Crown.  I actually found Dunaway's sequences in the 1999 film pretty terrific on this go-round (I don't recall feeling one way or another before) - but the contempt she has for her client is pretty tremendous.

There's probably a remake due in a decade where the roles are gender flipped and we get the "Thomasina Crown Affair", but I'd prefer a version where Banning actually sorts out or participates in the prestige at the finale.  I *like* the element of surprise in this version, where she watches things unfold with delight to echo the audience's reaction, and have no problem with it - but let's be honest about trends in movies these days.

There's a deep 90's-ness that does pervade the movie (directed by John McTiernan), from the Sting cover of "Windmills of my Mind" to the Gypsy Kings-esque scoring.  But we also get scenes of the street-wise cops (led by Dennis Leary playing himself) standing around in wonder at what rich people eat and drink... stuff like that.  It puts a curious pin in the timing of the movie that those of us who were hitting multiplexes during the era would recognize as boilerplate mainstream movie-stuff, and which both colors how curious the two main characters are in the movie and as characters during this era of filmmaking.

The third act feels particularly absurd and I'm not sure it works, exactly... but it's a kick nonetheless.

Still, and maybe this is me just really liking everything about Russo in this movie, I still like the film all these years on.  It's not exactly gritty realistic crime drama, but there's room for something entertaining, too.

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