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The good looks of 'The Thomas Crown Affair'

By Ashley Fantz

AUGUST 16, 1999:  She just couldn't have done it without a sexy salsa beat and see-through dress.

Most Memorable Scene from The Thomas Crown Affair: Newly buff Rene Russo tosses her copper hair wildly at Pierce Brosnan. Gripping her sheath dress and tossing its flimsy fabric into the ballroom light, the 40-plus actress exposes her bare porcelain bod and invites a dirty dance that makes Patrick Swayze look like Richard Simmons. The two gorgeous actors bump and grind and tease and lower their eyes seductively at each other. Their libidos lead and of course, they rush home and make the kind of wild, monkey love that only rich people do -- in front or on top of every ornate, expensive thing they own. Cut and print.

It is Russo's casual full-frontal exposure and strikingly elegant wardrobe that is the crowning achievement of The Thomas Crown Affair. As art insurer Catherine Banning, Russo enters unfamiliar territory, portraying a character defined primarily by her sexuality. She's abandoned the cutesy sidekick shtick audiences adored in Get Shorty, Lethal Weapon 3 and 4, and Tin Cup. From our introduction to Banning -- one garter-flashing leg protruding from a trench coat -- Russo becomes a take-charge vixen who hides her emotions behind Jackie O. sunglasses. Her assignment is to retrieve a gazillion-dollar Monet that international man of mystery Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan) has thieved from a New York City museum. Banning always gets her man, but this time the criminal looks so damn fine in his stubble and beach-front linen drawers that she loses her edge.

Brosnan is Bondian as ever, gracefully floating around his townhouse filled with artistic masterpieces, every now and then devising an elaborate plot to "borrow" another Cezanne or Renoir. When he needs a companion, he calls his friend Anna, portrayed by DKNY model Ester Canadas -- who gets not one line in the whole movie, just a few long-held catty scowls that prove modeling is not always a stepping stone for acting. Crown's life is vacant no matter how many paintings he swipes or how many catamarans he wrecks for the thrill of it -- a breath-taking feat that Brosnan performs without a stunt double. Crown just isn't the type of guy to settle for an average-looking woman. Even his psychiatrist -- Faye Dunaway -- practically purrs on camera. (Dunaway played Catherine Banning in the 1968 version with Steve McQueen.)

Director John McTiernan stays loyal to what made Die Hard his signature hit -- smug one-liners, token foreign burglars, and machismo. Banning has as much machismo and pride as her sought-after playboy. "Men make women messy," she says during her first date/inquisition with Crown, only to later break down at the foot of his marble staircase because she's now -- of course -- in love with him. One wonders if her loins don't simply burn for dollar signs because she's able to retain her bad-assness around poor Detective McCann, an uptight Denis Leary. Would someone give this guy a cigarette and his personality back? If his character is intended to foil Banning's designer tastes with J.C. Penney ties and a haircut that would embarrass Joey Lawrence, then a blow-up doll in Leary's place would have had more depth.

It's easy to get lost in a sea of super-modeldom in The Thomas Crown Affair. Fortunately the art often dwarfs the pretty people. Using works from recognizable artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miro, the film doesn't risk going beyond what an college art class would cover in the first two weeks. Look for a top-notch rip-off of Claude Monet's Impression: Sunrise 1872. Further, McTiernan makes up Crown's sluggish middle pace with a closing action scene that choreographed as a clever maze of mistaken identity.

By far, the reason to see The Thomas Crown Affair is the lead in stilettos. Sure, times have changed and titillating audiences with a flirtatious chess game -- as Dunaway and McQueen did -- doesn't a love scene make. But aloofness goes a long way when one's expected to bare it all -- emotionally and physically -- all the time. For an actress who turned down Sharon Stone's role in Basic Instinct because she thought she didn't have what she called, in a recent interview on Charlie Rose, "the sex," Russo doesn't seem to have trouble exuding its appeal. -- Ashley Fantz

There's trouble in Champion City. The trouble isn't, however, that there are marauding super-villains on the loose. It's that there aren't. Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) has put them all away, which is making it tough for his publicist to set up crime-fighting ops. His endorsements, which cover every inch of his rubberized body suit, are slipping.

So runs the premise in the inverted superhero saga Mystery Men. The film begins with the sub-par heroes of the title attempting to interdict a heist at a nursing home and getting their asses kicked terribly in the process -- until, that is, Captain Amazing arrives and makes short work of the perps before being escorted into a waiting limo. With the crime-fighting so meager, Amazing decides to appear, as alter-ego Lance Hunt, at the parole hearing of his arch-nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) in order to secure his release and solidify his own lagging market profile.

Would-be superheroes The Shoveler (William H. Macy), Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), and The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), meanwhile, sit around in a coffee shop and fret about their inability to hit the big time. Maybe they should hire a publicist. Maybe the Blue Raja, "master of silverware," should actually have some blue in his costume, or throw knives, instead of forks, with deadly precision. Little do they know that their shot is coming when Captain Amazing's plan to resume battle with Frankenstein backfires.

It's a clever premise, an offshoot of Dark Horse Comics' Flaming Carrot series, and one that lends itself to a lot of goofing on the superhero genre, particularly when the three up-and-comers hold auditions to expand their ranks and entertain pitches from wannabes like The Waffler (armed only with a waffle iron) and Pencil Head ("erases crime"). Ultimately, the trio teams up with The Spleen (Paul Reubens), whose powers derive from the fact that he once passed gas and blamed it on an old gypsy woman; Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who can only turn invisible if no one is looking; and The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), who fights crime with the help of a bowling ball inhabited by the spirit (and skull) of her dead father. Under the tutelage of The Sphinx (Wes Studi) -- a mysterious figure who speaks in self-help slogans and splits guns in half with his mind -- and with kooky tech support from Dr. Heller (Tom Waits), inventor of the "blame thrower" and other non-lethal weapons, this motley crew is ready to take a run at saving their lush Tim Burton-esque city from Casanova and assorted allied baddies.

The real mystery behind Mystery Men, however, is how so much big-time talent was recruited for this lightest of light entertainments. Oscar nominee Kinnear is smugly funny as the arrogant hero, and the likewise-honored Macy is lovably sad-sackish as a henpecked husband who won't let go of his dream. You have to go back to Gary Oldman's absurd villian-turn in The Fifth Element, however, to see an appearance as unlikely as that turned in by the Oscar-winning Rush.

Stiller, on the other hand, is true to form as the most self-deluded and insecure of the bunch -- his superpower is getting extremely, if ineffectually, angry -- as he resists the Sphinx's counsel and eventually comes to doubt his own (nonexistent) superpowers. Stiller has compared his character to a guy who starts a band, but is the band's least talented member, an accurate comparison and one that underlines the movie's main point: that superheroism is really just another wing of the entertainment industry. Garofalo's bone-dry sarcasm, meanwhile, serves to supply some much-needed winks to the audience.

Gags are abundant, if something short of knee-slapping, but Mystery Men is still essentially a one-joke movie, a lot funnier in the first 20 minutes than the last, much of which are, needless to say, consumed by copious explosions. -- Jim Hanas

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