A sensuously arched Halle Berry strutting around in form-fitting leather is the stuff movie cameras were made for. But too many others have ripped up the furniture in this comic-book house, a kittenish mess that even Berry's slinky charms can't save.
This isn't a case of fudging DC Comics lore: Catwoman has had more than one life over the years, from leopard-skin '60s sexpot Julie Newmar in the camp TV series to Michelle Pfeiffer's panther-like predator in Batman Returns. Nor is it a costume issue, despite the net-geek uproar. No, the problem lies in overripe filmmaking that's equal parts bad script, frenzied direction, choppy editing and acting that ranges from negligible (Benjamin Bratt) to claws-on-chalkboard dire (Sharon Stone).
As an action movie it's passable - particularly Berry's post-resurrection, kitty-power debut as she spins and kicks a couple of jewel thieves into submission. Alas, the climactic catfight with Stone (or, to be precise, Stone's double) is a lumpy, unexciting melée, as satisfying as a bowl of sour milk.
The hiring of French director Pitof was supposed to give this franchise-hopeful a sleeker edge. But the endless camera swoops and cut-cut-cut pacing indicate restless flashiness rather than, say, the confident, thoughtful force Sam Raimi brings to Spider-Man. Berry provides some catnip in the quieter scenes, especially in a funny moment in which she casually exhibits feline dexterity while pottering around her house. But the romance angle with Bratt's detective is ludicrous, a real waste of the sexual energy this tale deserves. (That said, Berry licking Bratt's face in a flash of antagonistic passion is so enjoyably crazy it feels improvised, which is welcome indeed.)
And Stone? Her character may represent the unattractive side of the youth-obsessed beauty industry, but does her acting have to be ugly, too? It's the ultimate letdown for the cause of kick-ass movie women. In Berry, Catwoman has a stunning, playful, formidable heroine. But she's vanquishing an easy target: the howler of a flick around her.
Despite Berry's spirited, sexy turn, this is cartoonish hokum with little flair and even smaller dramatic charge. Expect some hissing.