Crown (played with effortless pinache by Pierce Brosnan) is a gazillionaire businessman, but he's bored by his success in the boardroom. Instead, he apparently gets his kicks with intricately-planned art heists; the film begins with a superbly-executed sequence, in which the crew of foreign thieves Crown has hired for the complex caper is slowly revealed to be staging a mere diversion so that Crown can swipe the object of his desire--a Monet valued at $100 million--himself. He appears to make a clean getaway, but the cops (led by Denis Leary's Detective McCann) are soon on his trail, as is Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), the insurance investigator sent to retrieve the painting.
The police are hesitant to believe that the wealthy philanthropist is involved in the crime, but Banning, not exactly working class herself, sees something in Crown: that he's a man hunting for danger and thrills, who enjoys high risk for a higher reward. To that end, having Banning on his tail amps up his enjoyment of the enterprise--and it gives their rapidly-escalating flirtation a kick of danger. "It's not about the money," she tells him. "You like the chase." But he likes to be chased; the gamesplaying and oneupsmanship is what gives their relationship its snap.
Without their chemistry, the picture is dead in the water; luckily, their mature sensuality burns a hole right through the damned thing. Brosnan is all tailored suits and chauffeured towncars, but there's a gleam in his eye, a palpabe pleasure that he takes from his little adventures. Russo is pure sex--she's dressed to the nines, peering out behind her big sunglasses, flashing a devilish smile that proves to be more than a threat when she crashes a black-and-white ball in a see-through dress. Their scene on the dance floor ("Do you wanna dance... or do you wanna dance?") has to be hot to sell what follows. Consider it sold.
Once the pair takes the plunge, the pace of their game is increased; they're sharing a bed, but she still wants her painting, and he's still playing coy. "I won't back off, you know," she tells him. "I'd be disappointed if you did," he replies. He keeps raising the stakes, questioning her loyalty, testing her trust, while McCann challenges her to share what she knows, to get them closer to clipping the guy, even as Crown floats vague notions of them running away together.
It all comes to a head in one of the great caper climaxes in all of film, beautifully prepared, marvelously executed. Crown has told Banning that he will return the painting to the museum from which it came, and that if she trusts him, she'll let him do it without involving the police. But she thinks he's betrayed her, so New York's finest are in the house. Crown, however, is one step ahead; he shows up in a dapper black suit and derby hat (aping the Magritte "Son of Man" painting that she says reminds her of him), takes in his surroundings, and unleashes a dizzying array of lookalikes (all in their black suits and derby hats) to help him pull of the reverse-heist. You lean forward in your seat, the sequence--with its snazzy editing, slick photography, and sounds of Nina Simone warbling "Sinnerman"--is so deliciously done. It's one of the best set pieces of the McTiernan filmography, and remember, this is the guy who staged the fire hose bungee jump in Die Hard.
That last scene is such pure, unadulterated fun that we're forgiving, in retrospect, of the film's flaws. Its primary problem is Bill Conti's awful score; he's smart enough to interpolate little flashes of "Sinnerman" into it early on, but otherwise, it's a big drag. The bad guitar riffs in the opening caper sounded dated in '99 and worse now, while the cue that accompanies Russo's first line is pure cheese. Leary also can't do much to shake the clichés off of his cynical cop character (though it was an important step in his progression to playing more serious roles), while the great Ben Gazzara is, to put it mildly, underused. And, as ingenious as its construction may be, Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer's screenplay has some pretty dopey lines in the lesser scenes. Still... that ending. That's how you cap off a movie.
Similar to the Soderbergh Ocean's movies that followed it to the marketplace, The Thomas Crown Affair is a classy, sleek, ridiculously enjoyable movie. It's a good old-fashioned entertainment, full of good-looking stars in flawless clothes bantering wittily and gamely following a less-than-innovative screenplay with some flair. Yes, it's a bit of an exercise in style over substance. But what exquisite style it is.
"The Thomas Crown Affair" made its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, April 6. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.