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Dashing Criminals Are Back in Revival of '60s Cool Capers

Style, glamour drip from next year's lawbreakers.

October 25, 1998|Bill Desowitz | Bill Desowitz is a regular contributor to Calendar

The caper, one of the 1960s' coolest film genres, makes a dashing return to the screen next year as a slew of films tries to recapture its world of frivolous fun, elegant thrills, unapologetic wealth and glorified hedonism.

Remember Melina Mercouri and Maximilian Schell in "Topkapi," Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole in "How to Steal a Million" or Steve McQueen in "The Thomas Crown Affair"? They pulled off capers with glamorous kitsch.

But how do you rejuvenate a genre with no relevance today? By easing audiences into it, stressing plenty of action and romance, and reintroducing a modicum of sophistication and wit. Which explains why two James Bonds will play suave thieves in competing films, followed by a more unusual entry from explosive Hong Kong director John Woo.

Sean Connery, no stranger to cool or the caper, plays a legendary thief in "Entrapment," which is winding down production in London, Scotland and Malaysia for 20th Century Fox and set for a spring release. He's set up by undercover insurance investigator Catherine Zeta-Jones, hot off "The Mask of Zorro," who's a master thief herself.

Pierce Brosnan, who is successfully cultivated his own cool persona as the latest 007, stars in a remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair," shooting in New York for United Artists and set for a summer release. He's pursued by insurance investigator Rene Russo, reprising the original Faye Dunaway role.

Woo's caper, "King's Ransom," which is in development at Fox, concerns two volatile lovers and former circus performers who steal a special work of art from San Francisco's DeYoung Museum that belonged to their mentor. The film will probably be made after Woo directs the "Mission: Impossible" sequel next year, which, like its Brian De Palma-directed predecessor, will flaunt action set pieces right out of the caper film book.

Fox production chief Tom Rothman says "Entrapment" contains retro and contemporary sensibilities. "It has a sense of reality that's a little bit pushed--a world a little more glamorous that we don't see anymore. . . . And it has a real '90s feel with an empowered female."

"Entrapment" also has a very timely hook that provides a sense of urgency: the dreaded Y2K computer bug that has so many frightened about the potential technological chaos that will ring in 2000. A daring art theft leads to the largest and most ingenious bank heist in history--which can only happen at one moment in time, the changing of the millennium.

Rushing headlong into the new millennium in exotic locations also has its intimate thrills for Connery and Zeta-Jones. They play an erotic game about money and power with ever-shifting rules and roles.

Of course, the caper has always been a kind of sexual metaphor, never more so than in the original "The Thomas Crown Affair," a chic abstraction of '60s cool, exploiting McQueen and Dunaway with clever cinematic tricks: split-screen perspectives, glamorous poses in affluent Boston settings, Michel Legrand's jazzy score and the haunting "The Windmills of Your Mind" theme song; it played like a precursor of the music video.

For Brosnan, treading on McQueen territory is a natural progression after taking on Connery's Bond legacy. "I'm a big fan of McQueen and it all started with him," Brosnan explains. "My producing partner, Beau St. Clair, and I were discussing his body of work over a Starbucks two years ago. We thought of the idea of remaking 'Thomas Crown' as a way of dovetailing my success as Bond. We weren't looking to reinvent the caper." The McQueen model, in this case, is very ironic. His aristocratic role as Thomas Crown was a significant departure from his popular working-class characters. Actually, Connery was first offered the role in 1968 and turned it down. McQueen then strenuously lobbied director Norman Jewison to play the wealthy Boston financier.

But Jewison, who had previously worked with McQueen on 1965's "The Cincinnati Kid," initially thought it was too much of a stretch. Never one to back down from a challenge, McQueen eventually wore down his resistance.

"Wearing three-piece suits and walking in urbane shoes wasn't McQueen's forte, but he was so charismatic and so cool that he pulled it off," Brosnan says.

Brosnan, who's also producing the film, has expanded the love story along with the characterization of Crown, now a wealthy playboy. This could be risky if the script by Kurt Wimmer and Leslie Dixon can't sustain it. The original couldn't.

"What attracted me more than the caper aspect was the love story," Brosnan adds. "For me, it had a sadness to it, a tragic feel that they should meet under these circumstances.

"We're also investigating what makes [the McQueen character] tick. Why does someone who has so much, such incredible wealth, put himself in jeopardy by stepping outside of society, outside of the norm? Ennui, regret for what he didn't have in life. Frustration. It's almost Chekhovian."

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