Dir: Pitof. US. 2004. 105 mins.

Warner Bros' push to develop new franchises from the characters in its DCComics stable gets off to a shaky start with Catwoman, a flashy butuninvolving Batman spin-off (of sorts) with Halle Berry starring andone-named French talent Pitof directing.

Berry's popularity, as well as brand and character recognition, should resultin a sizeable and demographically varied audience when Warner opens the $100msuperhero action adventure in the US (with a PG-13 rating) this weekend. Butattendance - particularly of post-teen moviegoers - is likely drop off quicklythereafter.

Warner and partner Village Roadshow will have a tougher time selling the filmin international markets, though Pitof's name, the supporting cast and the campy,vaguely European feel might help in some territories.
Comic book aficionados have been complaining on the Internet about changes madefor the film to the original DC character, last played on the big screen byMichelle Pfeiffer in 1992's Batman Returns. Mainstream moviegoers, however,aren't likely to have any problem with the character's new back-story and sexedup look.

In this version, Berry's mild-mannered Patience Philips works as a graphicdesigner for a big cosmetics company run by a tyrannical boss (French starWilson, from The Matrix: Revolutions) and his fading supermodel wife(Stone). When she accidentally discovers the nasty long-term effects of theoutfit's new beauty cream, Patience is permanently silenced by companyhenchmen. She's resuscitated, however, by a mysterious kitty and finds herselfsuddenly equipped with cat-like senses and agility - and a wild streak thatsurprises friends and colleagues.

At night, as Catwoman, Patience first uses her feline skills for fun and profitbut then sets out to foil her former bosses' evil plans. Romance comes in theshape of a dishy cop (Bratt, from Pinero and formerly TV's Law & Order) who is trailing Catwoman (Batman, the character's original loveinterest, is nowhere to be seen). And comic relief comes from Patience'sman-crazy girlfriend (Borstein, from Mad TV). The clunky script alsocomes up with some Catwoman mythology - it all started in ancient Egypt,explains a cat lady (Conroy, from Six Feet Under) who becomes Patience'smentor - and an anti-ageism message, but neither theme is followed through.

Instead, it's Pitof's highly stylised visual approach that takes centre stage.The former digital effects whiz, who made his debut as a director with 2001French supernatural thriller Vidocq, lards many scenes with oddly angledclose-ups and bold colour design. The action set-pieces - in which Catwomanlets fly with a mix of martial arts and gymnastics - play like pop videos,complete with pounding rap, metal or techno backing tracks.

Other aspects of the production seem misjudged or neglected. The performancesare either over the top (Stone's icy villainess) or flat (Bratt's insipid niceguy). And the digital effects used to show Catwoman leaping from building tobuilding are considerably below recent big budget standards (especially whencompared to somewhat similar shots in Spider-Man 2).

The film's shortcomings leave a lot of weight resting on Berry's shoulders. Shecertainly looks good, in a skimpy designer S&M get up that's a far cry fromPfeiffer's crudely stitched body suit. And she does an impressive job mimickinga cat's graceful strut, and wielding her character's only weapon, a slinkybullwhip. What she doesn't quite capture, though, is Catwoman's darker, moredecadent side, the side that has traditionally given the character her moralambiguity.

The film ends with a come-on for future instalments of a Catwoman franchise.But if Warner and DC hope to match the success that rival Marvel has recentlyenjoyed with comic book adaptations like Spider-Man and X-Menthey may do better to focus their efforts on upcoming projects featuring DC'sbiggest stars, like next summer's new Batman movie and the long-planned Supermanrevival.

Prod cos: Warner Bros Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, Di Novi Pictures.
Dist (US): Warner.
Dist (intl): Village Roadshow (Australia, New Zealand, Greece, Singapore),Warner (rest of world).
Prods: Denise Di Novi, Edward L McDonnell.
Exec prods Michael Fottrell, Benjamin Melniker, Michael E Uslan, Robert Kirby,Bruce Berman.
Scr: John Brancato & Michael Ferris, John Rogers.
Director of Photography: Thierry Arbogast.
Prod des: Bill Brzeski.
Ed: Sylvie Landra.
Music: Klaus Badelt.
Main cast: Halle Berry, Benjamin Bratt, Lambert Wilson, Frances Conroy, SharonStone, Alex Borstein.