The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

If you’ve only ever had Spam, you might think it was pretty good
John McTiernan
Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo, Dennis Leary, Frankie Faison
The Setup: 
Remake of the popular 1968 film about a billionaire who steals things for fun.

I recently showed the original of this film to my friend for movie night, and was re-affirmed in my belief that while it certainly isn’t re-inventing the language of cinema, it definitely is SOMETHING. That made me realize I might as well watch the remake again, which I had seen when it came out and, having not yet seen the original, thought was pretty good. In retrospect it is not that bad, I suppose, but it has nothing on the original in terms of swinging style and depth of character. And there’s no erotic chess.

We open with Pierce Brosnan as Thomas Crown in therapy with Faye Dunaway, a shout-out to the original film. These therapy interludes come up every now and then to tell you what you’re supposed to be thinking about the story, because the filmmaker’s think you’re too dumb to figure it out on your own. Crown then goes to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and looks at a Van Gogh, ignoring the Monet that is to be the target of his heist. In the original he stole money, but I guess art is a good update, because it would be interesting to a billionaire, whereas more money, eh, why? By the way, they were able to shoot exteriors of the Met, because it belongs to the city of New York, but the interior lobby is the interior of the New York Library on Fifth Avenue, and gallery interiors are sets. This is because there is no way the Met is going to imply in any way, shape or form that they participated in a movie about someone stealing a work of art from their museum.

We then see Crown at business, and note they kept the “you overpaid” scene, though now much more explicated to account for the drop in audience educational levels. Meanwhile an extraneous horse is delivered to the Met. At a certain point, three men come out of the horse, dress as guards and infiltrate the museum. There are three funny aspects: one, the crazy rock music during this scene, two, the lasers that make loud “zooshes” as they scan the room, and how very out of place the three fake thug guards look, all unshaven. We hear a schoolteacher give us some exposition about the work of art to be stolen, which is supposedly worth a hundred million dollars, and—get THIS one—single-handedly inspired the movement of Impressionism. This movie is not where you should be turning for art history education. In fact, an interesting study on this film’s subtly anti-art attitude could be easily thrown together. Anyway, they thugs are a diversion, and Crown easily gets in and steals the Monet. Note the precious, precious assumption that paintings in world-class museums are just hung on the wall with single nails. He throws the painting in a briefcase and cracks it in half! He can’t love it all that much, because that is going to cause some DAMAGE.

Let us take a brief moment here to lament the lack of style this film has when compared to the original. The first incarnation had the idea to present certain sequences as musical interludes, so you would suddenly start having all these split- and fractured screens, with interesting editing, all set to the quite prominent score by Michel Legrand. It is in large part what makes the first film so distinctive and one with its time, but it’s too bad they couldn’t have executed the robbery here with just a little more panache, or tried to at least symbolically allude to the style of the first, but alas, the robbery here is just another sequence. There is later a vastly truncated version of the scene where Crown sits at home laughing, savoring his victory.

So Dennis Leary is at the museum when Rene Russo shows up as Insurance Investigator Catherine Banning. She’s supposed to be all glamorous and sexy, but ten years later she just looks like one of the Real Housewives of Beverley Hills. When I first saw this movie I thought Russo was pretty hot, and pretty good, but this time I must admit I found her fairly dreadful. She’s hanging around the museum in a fur and wearing her sunglasses indoors, and her brassiness just comes off as brattiness. In the original, back in 1968, Dunaway played Banning as—believe it or not—an in-your-face feminist argument, daring everyone not to take her seriously because she’s sexy and glamorous, and then not giving a toss if hey DON’T take her seriously. Russo just can’t project the sophistication and is simply trying too hard in many scenes. We’ll continue to harp on her.

Anyway, for some reason a truncated version of the golfing scene from the original is here, dialogue virtually intact. This Thomas Crown also testifies against the people he hired to create the diversion heist—I think this is so we can understand that he is not a bad PERSON inside, despite his being a criminal. Anyway, a few days after the heist, he donates a painting from his personal collection to the museum to take the place of the stolen one.

Oh, there’s a funny thing: if you watch the movie, notice around 32:26 when Banning is speaking Russian on whatever to the mobsters—if you listen carefully, she clearly says “Edward G. Robinson” amidst all the Russian-sounding gibberish. She is conducting police work when she suddenly decides that she must—absolutely MUST consume a Pepsi One RIGHT NOW, and hold the can, logo out, toward the camera on several occasions. It is one of the more brazen and bold product placements in recent memory. Anyway, soon she has determined that it’s Crown and introduces herself to him at a party, just like in the original, and using the dialogue virtually unchanged.

Then it’s back to therapy for more emotional exposition, telling us, as opposed to showing us, that Crown has found a “worthy adversary.” Then we’re back in the museum, wondering what possible show could result in a Magritte painting hanging amid a bunch of ancient statues. Then Banning and Crown are at Cipriani, and you notice that Banning continues to drink her water, despite the fact that she has been served champagne. By now we’ve noticed that the soundtrack alternates pop with jazz, and the pop is absolutely dreadful.

At about an hour in Banning and Crown engage in a Latin dance that is supposed to be really sexy—again, one of those sequences that goes on forever—and finally they kiss. Then go home and literally fuck all over the house, including on the marble stairs, which I’m guessing is fairly uncomfortable. Then they go gliding in another long, dull sequence. This movie is really padded out with time-wasters, most of them designed to convey “Luxury!” or “Sex!”

So they’re in love. He says they could run away together, but she observes that they’d be fugitives. A lot more complications go on, including a painting forger who just happens to look and dress like [and be played by] a fashion model. Crown says that he’ll put the painting back, and then they’ll both be in the clear, and can run off together. I’m not sure the law would look on it as quite that simple, but whatever. Ready for me to tell you the ending? Turns out the replacement painting was a fake, painted in water-based paint over the original Monet. In order to reveal this, Crown sets off the sprinkler, and soaks the water off the fake painting—and the original. And somehow I don’t think it’s very healthy to soak painting masterpieces in water. Not to mention that no one who supposedly works at the Met Museum can tell that this piece of bunk is a forgery. Anyway, the painting back, Banning takes off to be with Crown, both of them in the clear. The original doesn’t end quite this way.

For a movie set in the world of art and centered around art, it shows a curious contempt of art. First there is the ignorance that one painting that single-handedly inspired the Impressionist movement. Then there are the various curatorial decisions, like the one that places a Magritte painting in a gallery with ancient statuary, or 17th Century historical portraits with Impressionist works. Then there is the matter of the supposedly original Reubens Banning impulsively burns and is allowed to pass out of world culture as kind of a joke [although with Reubens—take it]. There is the fact of the major forgery that the curators of the Met supposedly do not know enough to recognize. There’s the whole idea of the idle rich stealing major, one-of-a-kind painting on whims, and finally, Leary’s comment that paintings and art in general “only matter to a bunch of rich people.” It’s funny, the movie aspires to depict highbrow tastes and high culture, but throughout it cuts them down with lowbrow derision. You want the money, of course, it tells its audience, but you’re not a snob like these bluebloods!

As a movie, standing on its own, it could be worse. I suppose it’s nice to have a movie with adult characters who do adult things and have sex like adults, and the bones of the story are handled okay. It’s a reasonable update. Compared to the original, it lacks the depth of characterization, and there is comparatively no style whatsoever. And while Brosnan is pretty good, Rene is simply no Faye, and the ensuing decades have changed the context of her character to such a degree that she doesn’t make that much sense anymore. I hate to be one of those people that harps on originals versus remakes, but if you like this one, I would say you owe it to yourself to see the first. If you’ve seen neither, I would start at the first and maybe skip this one entirely. Incidentally, there was talk to remaking Topkapi as a sequel to this film, and that sounds like it would have been fun, but as the years go on it seems ever less likely.

Should you watch it: 

No, I would watch the original, although this one won’t kill you.

THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968) has McQueen and Faye Dunaway at the height of her Faye-ness, and has style to burn and relatively rich characterization.