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'Crown Affair': Fiery Cool

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 1999

  Movie Critic

'The Thomas Crown Affair'
Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan star in "The Thomas Crown Affair." (MGM)

John McTiernan
Pierce Brosnan;
Rene Russo;
Denis Leary;
Ben Gazzara;
Faye Dunaway;
Frankie Faison
Running Time:
1 hour, 53 minutes
Nudity, sexual contact and dialogue comprising grammatically correct sentences
For a movie about rich people, "The Thomas Crown Affair" has a radical agenda. It argues with revolutionary zeal that style, jazz, neat clothes, good if aged bodies, and a smart script are still capable of entertaining an audience. People whose synapses have been fried by overexposure to bootleg Internet video from Woodstock '99 won't get it, but anyone who knows the meaning of the word "cool" should have a fine time.

That's because "The Thomas Crown Affair" is very cool.

Note I do not argue that it is good, since cool and good occupy parallel, eternally unconnected universes.

This movie was pretty cool when it starred the original Cool King, Steve McQueen, back in 1968. This time through it stars Pierce Brosnan, who up till now hasn't gotten in the same time zone as cool. As Bond he is not cool or even interesting, but merely pretty.

But in this film, he achieves cool by the Zen of pretending passionately to have not a pretense of passion anywhere in his body. He has devolved to pure style, intellect and instinct. His heart barely beats, his lungs barely draw oxygen. His suits glide across his svelte body like a second sheath of skin. His Thomas Crown, international financier and Manhattan beautiful person, is gorgeous without seeming to preen. He is smart without seeming to sweat. He never is spotted looking in a mirror, yet his hair is perfect; even when it musses, it musses perfectly.

When Norman Jewison directed Steve McQueen all those years back, the movie itself was a kind of afterthought to McQueen's cool, and Faye Dunaway's, as the insurance investigator more provoked by Crown than offended by him. Mostly it was McQueen posing without seeming to notice the camera, his style radiating outward like a wave of radioactivity. Meanwhile, Dunaway flirted so aggressively she seemed to prematurely age before our eyes.

This time, Dunaway, just as flirty but with a face fortified by enough surgery to hold back the Nile to say nothing of the ravages of time, is still around. But she's not the lead, she's the shrink. (There wasn't a shrink in the original, if memory serves.) More important, the screenwriters, Leslie Dixon & Kurt Wimmer (I don't know what the ampersand means, but I'm sure it's important), and the director, action maestro John McTiernan, have added what seems to be a plot, and it's a definite improvement. The movie isn't just about the animal magnetism of the beautiful; it's also got a twitch of genuine cleverness to it, an actual arc of character movement. Good heavens, it's actually a story! Why, I'm shocked, shocked!

And it's got Rene Russo. At 45. When most at that age have slid unguently into that good night, Russo still has the chops to go sassily topless and make you love her forever. If Brosnan is cool cool, Russo is hot cool. If he's the distant, aloof prey, she's the huntress, all Diana, not so much eager for the kill as for the true hunting pleasure, which is the pleasure of the stalk. Naturally, he loves it when they do that.

The story is fancy yet simple. It stems from the fact that Crown loves art and can afford it. But why buy it? Buying it is not cool. Stealing it: Now that's cool. A Monet is lifted deftly from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We know that Crown did it, because we watch him orchestrate the elements, the false attempts that distract the security forces of the institution until they are so hopelessly confused that, like a nimble-fingered pickpocket, he can take possession of the piece.

The cops, led by Denis Leary in a rare likable role (that guy? likable?), are hopelessly outclassed. In strides the insurance investigator as superstar model, just as aware of the power of her beauty as she is of the power of her intellect. Catherine Banning's job is to get the Monet back so that her clients don't have to pay through the nostrils, and she exudes such confidence that she should go into motivational speaking. But this isn't just a triumph of a beauty; it's a triumph of an actress, who is liberated by this role. Though she's been in the talking pictures for a couple of decades now, Russo should be elevated by "Crown" from the one who gets the parts Sarandon turns down to the one who turns down the parts that Sarandon gets.

What works best in the movie is the heat of the chemistry on screen between Russo and Brosnan. The movie is actually pretty steamy, and the bodies involved, fatless as only good genes and commitment to some kind of ab machine from Hell can provide, look good, particularly intertwined. It's sex but it's romance, too, because you feel the attraction not merely of the bodies, but of the characters inside the bodies. These two actually like each other.

This is a movie that understands the larger-than-life appeal of the old-fashioned movie star and one of the movies' most primal appeals: beautiful people doing amusing things while talking about it cleverly. It's a pleasure that's almost vanished, but "The Thomas Crown Affair" restores it, gloriously, just this once.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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