The 1990s revival of the musical 'Chicago', both in London and on Broadway, prompted a big screen version at a time when there were scant attempts at the genre. While Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge and Lars Von Trier's Dancer In The Dark, were vigorously post-modern affairs, Chicago is a throwback to the more traditional musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. As such, it's surprisingly effective.
The story is set in 1929 Chicago, but instead of gangsters and prohibition, the criminals here are man-murdering women. The story follows cabaret singer/dancer Velma Kelly and wannabe star Roxie Hart, whose crimes of passion land them in prison, where they become arch rivals for the attentions of super-attorney Billy Flynn - each hoping that he will save them from the gallows.
The casting is imaginative, to say the least. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Velma, Renée Zellweger (hot after Bridget Jones's Diary) is Roxie, and Richard Gere brings his inimitable brand of false charm and insouciance to the role of Flynn.
After an unengaging start, the action hots up when the two women are incarcerated. The prison numbers are among the best in the film - brilliantly choreographed, utilising a sexy, accomplished chorus. 'Cell Block Tango' is thrillingly reminiscent of Elvis Presley's 'Jailhouse Rock', and 'When You're Good To Mama', performed by rapper-turned-actress Queen Latifah is the best-sung number in the film. Gere's entrance also spices up proceedings. Often an actor who underplays so much he seems barely alive, he ups his wattage here and demonstrates a rarely seen comic touch. 'Reached For The Gun', with Gere playing a ventriloquist and Zellweger his dummy, is hilarious.
The two leads have so-so experiences. Zeta-Jones gives a ballsy, charismatic performance, but her character is too-often sidelined by the plot. Zellweger can't sing or dance, and looks painfully emaciated (a reaction perhaps to gaining all that weight for Bridget Jones), but with her strength as a comedienne she ably provides the spine of the film.
While the song and dance numbers are mostly performed on stage, the film does open out occasionally onto a nicely realised fictional Chicago and director Rob Marshall, an experienced stage choreographer, provides enough cinematic visuals to make this a valid screen outing. Its commentary on celebrity is also apt for contemporary audiences. By the finale, as Zellweger and Zeta-Jones at last perform a number together, you can feel the electric charge down your spine - what more could you ask?