Baz Luhrmann's hyperkinetic musical Moulin Rouge blew the cobwebs from the genre with its bold use of songs, gaudy colour and breakneck cutting. But while it revitalised the way musicals are seen on screen, it left producers with a dilemma - could they still make audiences accept traditional tunes? The answer, blasted onto the screen with gusto, is Chicago, a heady mix of satire, spectacle and sex. Where Moulin was goofy, Chicago is cutting; and where Luhrmann focused on the romance, helmer Rob Marshall and scripter Bill Condon have opted for raw passion.
It's set in the roaring '20s and flings us into a sleazy world of liquor and jazz, where the city's most famous murderess, Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones), awaits trial for slaughtering her cheating husband and sister. Then new celeb killer Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) is banged up for blowing away her unfaithful lover. Naturally the pair become embroiled in a battle for both stardom and acquittal, so it's not long before the cells of Cook County Jail are home toa succession of storming set-pieces.
In a canny move, Marshall has chosen to present the majority of the choreographed action as the products of his characters' imaginations. So as the women on Murderer's Row tell their tales in the corridors, the mind's-eye vision swirls into `The Cell Block Tango's' dance routines with a flourish that's hard to dislike. Likewise, when ultra-smooth lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) manipulates the press during the show-stopper `We Both Reached For The Gun', it's represented as a puppet show. This cross-cutting between reality and fevered fantasy doesn't always work (a hanging scene that's only hinted at on stage is given gruesome life in one of the film's few missteps), but it's an impressive trick that allows for some incredible visuals. And we're not just talking about the skimpy outfits the majority of the female cast are poured into.
As for the stars, they all manage to impress. Zeta-Jones is suitably sultry as the violent Velma, but it's Zellweger who shines through in most of the scenes. Switching easily from the perky, pleasant demeanour she perfected in Jerry Maguire to streaks of sheer, naked ambition, she's never less than watchable as Roxie. The only time she's eclipsed is when the film's biggest revelation strides onto the screen: Richard Gere. Yes, after years of lazy, eye-twinkling charisma or solemn, stony-faced emoting, Gere finally gets the chance to be animated. To have fun. And he's perfect as Flynn - slimy, charming and able to warble with the best of them.
Fans of the stage musical - still going strong in London and New York - will undoubtedly love this adaptation, and any unconverted who dare give it a go will find its dark heart just as appealing as any whizzy camera moves Moulin Rouge had to offer. Well worth the 20-year wait.