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When Chicago earned a slew of Academy Award nominations in 2003, it was easy to suspect such marked the return of the Hollywood musical, much as Clint Eastwood's 1992 Unforgiven seemed to inject new life into the bygone Western genre. And while it remains to be seen if Chicago will launch a legion of imitators (which is unlikely), it is an energetic, refreshing experience for contemporary filmgoers who find themselves caught between well-worn action flicks and predictable romantic comedies. Adapted from Bob Fosse's 1975 Broadway musical, the film is not delivered in the classic Hollywood style, which may have been a smart move on the filmmakers' part. At no time does the script allow the actors to develop a conversation into some sort of song-and-dance repartee — rather, each number is presented as a fantasy-event in the mind of Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), a young woman who shoots a paramour to death and then asks her meek husband Amos (John C. Reilly) to come to her defense. Amos raises enough cash to enlist the services of noted defense attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who notes with great sincerity that, had Jesus Christ been his client, things would have turned out differently. In prison, in custody of Matron 'Mama' Morton (Queen Latifah), Roxie develops a rivalry with nightclub star Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is in the slammer for killing her sister in a jealous rage over a man. Velma, after all, is a celebrity, whereas Roxie can only hope that one day she too will be the toast of Chicago, and with the help of Flynn she plans to turn her notoriety into a successful stage career.

As musical cinema, Chicago clearly places the emphasis on cinema — first-time director Rob Marshall, a Broadway veteran, could have drawn on the gems of the '40s and '50s to deliver something in the classical style, with long, sweeping takes of the performers framed head-to-toe. Back then, such cinematography fulfilled an important function, delivering genuine Broadway talent to theaters around the world with their inimitable skills on unobstructed display. Perhaps audiences today would not have the same level of patience, and perhaps Marshall understood that his leads did not have the same natural talent as Kelly and Astaire, and thus would require plenty of edits. In any event, Marshall gives 'em the old razzle-dazzle (in the words of one song), transforming the song-and-dance genre into a concurrent exercise of music, editing, and framing. For a first-timer, Marshall displays a knack for putting together a shot, and he performed double-duty by first directing the choreography and then the cameras — no small feat indeed. Much hay has been made over the fact that the three leads (and indeed, the supporting players as well), had made their names in Hollywood rather than on the Great White Way. Zeta-Jones, in fact, had a musical-theater background before becoming a television star in Great Britain and then a movie star the world over. Gere, on the other hand, did some musicals early in his career, but not many. And Zellweger had absolutely no singing or dancing experience at all. Gere compensates somewhat by singing in an affected, nasal voice, which fleshes out his character, and if Zellweger isn't perfect, she's still a joy to watch, and Marshall's camera adores her. The pace moves quickly, with little time to pause between numbers. Standouts include Queen Latifah's torch-song turn with "When You're Good to Mama," the inspired human-marionette piece "We Both Reached for the Gun," Zellweger's Monroesque "Roxie," done with a black background, mirrors, and a troupe of tuxedo-clad gentlemen, John C. Reilly's pathos-drenched "Mister Cellophane," and the three-ring circus of "Razzle Dazzle." By the time the finale "I Move On" hits the screen, with Zeta-Jones and Zellweger kicking up their heels in front of thousands of light-bulbs, one realizes just how much more power the film would have if Marshall would simply let his camera rest for even 30 seconds to let us admire the footwork. As it is, it's still a number that can't be done justice on DVD — only a 40-foot-high movie screen can capture this film in all of its visual splendor.

*          *          *

Buena Vista's DVD release of Chicago features a crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1. Features include a commentary from director Marshall and scenarist Bill Condon, which is a casual appraisal of what they like about the film and how they arrived at various decisions. Also on board is a "making-of" featurette (28 min.) and the deleted number "Class" with Zeta-Jones and Latifah, also with commentary. Keep-case.

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