This has not been a good summer for Hollywood felines. First "Garfield" went straight into the litter box. Now we get "Catwoman," declawed and surprisingly scruffy-looking for a studio's pet project.
The movie suffers from the opposite of a syndrome affecting most comic-book spin-offs. Too often in these first installments, we twiddle our thumbs as the filmmakers explain how Peter Parker became Spider-Man or Matt Murdock warped into Daredevil. The "real" movie doesn't start until we're about halfway through.
Instead, the conversion of mousy Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) into snarling Catwoman is far and away the best part of this film. Once she dons her black leather mask and sets out to save the world, it's all downhill.
Adding to the disappointment is that the movie is the first feature film we've seen from Pitoff, a one-named French filmmaker who has been on the cutting edge of digital special effects. (He did make a feature in his homeland, 2001's "Vidocq," which was named best film at the Catalonian International Film Festival, a program so prestigious that the movie immediately fell off the edge of the Earth.)
For the most part, the special effects are not convincing. Shots of Catwoman leaping from building to building recall the way Spider-Man swings through Manhattan, but in terms of execution, they're not even in the same zip code. The character looks like a collection of pixels bouncing across the screen. Perhaps this is one of those movies that will look better on a TV set, where the eye can't make the same distinctions as in a movie theater.
But the smaller format won't help the plot. We don't expect logic to be the highest priority in a superhero movie, but when this story begins with Patience wandering in through the unlocked back door of a super-secret cosmetics-research facility, we can't help but roll our eyes.
While strolling around the plant, she overhears the company's evil owners -- Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone) and her husband (Lambert Wilson from the "Matrix" series) -- admit that their new face cream is addictive and, if a woman stops using it, leaves the skin covered with scaly scars. Nonetheless, they plan a much-ballyhooed worldwide launch of the cream next week.
Patience is discovered, and gun-slinging security men chase her into a toxic-waste sewer main. They lock her in and flush the pipe with enough chemicals to wipe out New Jersey. When her dead body washes up on shore, a mystical cat breathes into her mouth and brings her back to life.
The evolution of Patience into a cat is fun to watch. She hisses at dogs when she walks down the street and develops a craving for tuna. The lithe Berry convincingly adds cat-like movements to her body language.
Once the police learn about Catwoman, they assume -- as they always do in these superhero movies -- that she's evil. Detective Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt) is assigned the task of catching her.
Gosh, Bratt playing a police officer. There's a stretch. Who would have thought after "Law & Order,"Miss Congeniality,"Nasty Boys" and "Police Story" that he could play a cop?
Berry certainly has the star power to pull this off. Sexy and talented -- she earned that Oscar for "Monster's Ball" -- she's a natural choice for a movie franchise to be built around. But she needs better material and, especially in a project that lives and dies by its special effects, better technical support.
Berry purportedly has told the "X-Men" producers that she's giving up her role as Storm in that series to focus on turning this into a series. She must think "Catwoman" has nine lives, but the first installment could use a little more life.
The setup: A mousy artist (Halle Berry) turns into a crime-fighting superhero.
What works: The lithe Berry does a wonderful job of incorporating cat-like movements into her daily routines.
What doesn't: The special effects are cheesy and obvious.
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