Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (1998) Part 2

9. The Thomas Crown Affair

“The 13th Warrior” was obviously an ordeal for McTiernan. After such a difficult production, and such disastrous box office gross, perhaps the action director was looking to change gears. His next project, released the same month but filmed afterwards, would feature few explosions and even fewer bullet wounds. 1968’s “The Thomas Crown Affair” is remember more for its theme song and the antics of its leading man than anything in the actual movie, making it a good candidate for a remake. Starring a still-hot Pierce Brosnan and riding a wave of positive reviews, the thriller gave John McTiernan’s career yet another shot in the arm. Though the success would admittedly be short lived, “The Thomas Crown Affair” is probably the best film from the last act of McTiernan’s career.

Business exec Thomas Crown seemingly lives a charmed life. He’s rich, handsome, and smart enough to out-think his professional rivals at every turn. Yet Crown craves something more, excitement and a worthy enemy. Strictly for his own amusement, he steals a priceless painting from the museum. While the heist baffles the cops, insurance investigator Catherine Banning quickly realizes that Crown is behind the theft. While trailing him, Catherine and Crown begin a hot and heavy affair. Even while they’re this close, the couple play each other, trying to decipher who is deceiving who.

“The Thomas Crown Affair,” coming at the end of the decade, is technically a member of that most nineties of all genres: The erotic thriller. Despite featuring some high-gloss sex scenes (and some dated technology), the film actually feels kind of timeless. Showing its sixties roots, the film actually belongs to a much older tradition. It hearkens back to a time when the charm of good-looking movie stars were enough to make a hit. Where half the fun is figuring out where the loyalties of the characters lie. In that sense, the movie has something in common with “The Hunt for Red October” and a few other movies that McTiernan made in the past.

As James Bond, Pierce Brosnan never really clicked for me. Though he was a solid action performer, Brosnan never seemed to grasp the comedic or romantic sides of the characters. Maybe it was the scripts. In “The Thomas Crown Affair,” Brosnan is way cooler than he ever was as Bond. From the first scene, he’s shown as a man of secrets, with complex motivations only known to him. The script depends on him immediately charming Catherine and, by extension, the audience. With his seductive smile and high-fashion life style, Brosnan oozes a sense of smooth cool. The film unlocks the suave charm that was always hiding inside Brosnan, under utilized by the demands of his big franchise.

Crown may get top billing but the movie may actually be more about Rene Russo’s Banning. In her first scene, she’s introduced in a dress slit up to the thigh, revealing her garter. Russo is obviously presented as a sex symbol from the beginning. And Russo is incredibly glamorous and sensual. The film parades her in a number of revealing outfits, like a clinging black dress or knee high leather boots. Yet Russo isn’t just eye candy. Her character is very intelligent, always pursuing leads and loose threads on her own. She is, after all, the one who fingers Crown for the crime as soon as she sees him.

Brosnan and Russo are fine on their own. The chemistry they share is what truly elevates the film. From the moment they meet, it’s immediately apparent how attracted the two are to each other. Their banter is well executed, Banning knowing what Crown is up to. The sexual tension, during their meal together, is almost overbearing. Soon afterwards, the two succumb to their mutual passion. The sex scene is long, at least by mainstream standards. The two consummate their relationship on just about every surface in Thomas’ home. Though featuring nudity from both actors, the sequence or the others like it never come off as exploitative. The movie’s sensual tone is such that, if the two leads weren't humping soon enough, the audience would’ve been frustrated. The steamy yet tasteful love scenes match the film’s fashionable tone.

Of course, “The Thomas Crown Affair” just isn’t about its characters’ sex lives. A game of deception is central to the story. We know Crown stole the painting. What he did next isn’t entirely clear. The business of paintings hidden under other paintings, switcharoos and double crosses, forgers and copies, aren’t horribly important. What’s more compelling is whether or not Thomas is being honest with Catherine. Soon, another woman enters his life, and Russo wonders if she’s being played. The true identity of this mystery woman is revealed eventually. What she represents, the dishonesty Crown propagates, is more pertinent. Up until the very end, we don’t see the entirety of Crown’s con. Banning doesn’t know if she’s ahead of him or being pulled along. The misdirection represents a whole lot of plot, the details varying. The emotions the cast feel is what truly keeps the viewer invested.

“The Thomas Crown Affair” isn’t exactly an action movie. Yet both of the heists play out like action sequences. The first has a slow build-up. A group of men climb out of a statue of a horse. There’s wires to be cut and security systems to be tinkered with. Avoiding the infrared cameras by raising the heat in the room is a clever idea. After that slow burn of a start, the heist explodes in an unexpected direction at the end. A helicopter circles overhead. One of the museum employees whips an electric cattle prod out. Most excitingly, Brosnan leaps into action. He rolls under a grate, grabs the painting, and rolls back out. It’s pretty cool.

After that dynamite opening, “The Thomas Crown Affair” turns its focus to the main pair’s romance. However, for the climax, an even bigger heist is performed. Though the police identify Crown by his bowler hat, the museum is soon filled with other people wearing the same style of hat. (This is a cute tie-in with the painting being stolen.) A suitcase, full of prints of the same painting, is spilled on the floor. A trio of smoke bombs are tossed into a room, exploding and setting off the sprinklers. As the water comes down, paint melts away, another clever reveal. Crown makes a daring get-away, leaving the cops flustered and confused.

Contributing to the excitement factor of both heists is McTiernan’s typical masterful direction. The opening scene, which cuts between Crown in the board room and in the museum, moves at a rocket’s pace. The camera never slows down during this scene. But McTiernan knows when to leap around and knows when to hold still. During Thomas and Catherine’s dinner, he pauses to focus on their faces, starring into each others' eyes. Though famous for his hyper-active camera work and explosive plots, the director is smart enough to trust his actors, knowing their chemistry can keep these scenes afloat.

Brosnan and Russo are clearly the stars of the show. Yet there are some plum supporting parts. As the government agent leading the investigation, Denis Leary gets a showy part. He unsuccessfully pursues Russo. His attempts to woo her are likably awkward. During a long car drive, we get a peak into Leary’s personal life and the failed marriage that deeply affected him. Faye Dunaway, who starred in the original film, has a small role as Crown’s psychiatrist. These scenes are mostly a framing device, given us a peak into Crown’s motivations. While not exactly necessary, Dunaway has an amusing rapport with Brosnan.

Supporting the film is an eccentric soundtrack. Bill Conti provides the music, McTiernan reuniting with the composer for the first time since “Nomads.” The jazz score gives a unique energy to many of the scenes. During the first heist, an up-beat song plays, keeping the audience excited. Modern and classic jazz songs reappear throughout the movie, reinforcing the sense of cool that is so vital to the film's success. Naturally, the remake reprises “The Windmills of Your Mind.” An instrumental, jazz version plays during a dance scene. A pretty drippy cover, courtesy of Sting, plays over the end credits. Over all, “The Thomas Crown Affair” is nearly as interesting to listen to as it is to watch.

The plot may very well be rubbish. The charisma of the leading actors, engaging direction, exciting editing, and an intoxicating atmosphere of slickness and sexiness prevents the viewer from noticing. Brosnan and Russo are a delight to watch. The film moves along quickly, making for a fun viewing experience. Perhaps John McTiernan should have stepped outside of the action genre more often. Pretty people having sexy sex in exotic locations: It counts for something. [Grade: B+]

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