Tango and Cash

Chicago dances its way through the origins of the celebrity crook.

Al Capone himself probably couldn't kill Chicago. The bawdy Kander and Ebb musical has been charming theater audiences since 1975 with its gleefully jaundiced view of life, and Rob Marshall's inventive movie version will likely win a lot of new friends for the stagestruck murderess Roxie Hart, her sharpie lawyer Billy Flynn, and her cunning rival in the vaudeville arts, Velma Kelly. As the show has always taught us, the public is fickle and fame is fleeting. But some things turn out to be timeless. Chicago looks like one of them.

Credit director Marshall, who's a veteran Broadway choreographer (he did the recent Cabaret revival), a hardworking cast led by Renée Zellweger, and uncommonly clever screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) with giving the old warhorse a terrific makeover without compromising its classic poses. In the 1990s, some less-than-inspired revivals of the show featured less-than-sparkling players, and Chicago seemed headed for dinner-theater oblivion in Peoria. But a well-made movie can do wonders for a threadbare institution. Marshall's updated conception of the piece is both intimate and powerful, and its underlying messages about the art of publicity and the going price of justice in a cynical world seem more piquant than ever. If anything, the frankly sexual choreography of the late, great Bob Fosse improves onscreen -- all those splay-legged chorines look even better in close-up -- and every time cinematographer Dion Beebe's camera barges into a dingy jail cell or a courtroom throbbing with legal razzle-dazzle, we feel a new zing of recognition. It's not just corrupt, boozy old Chicago we're seeing up there, it's our own relationship with sin. And self.

Roxie Hart goes way back, of course. Chicago Tribune reporter-turned-playwright Maurine Watkins created the ambitious little floozy in 1926 (a year before The Front Page), when sensational murder trials competed with bathtub gin as the Windy City's favorite source of entertainment. In 1942, Ginger Rogers played Roxie in a frantic Twentieth Century Fox comedy directed by William Wellman. Later, the dynamic Gwen Verdon so enlivened the original Kander-Ebb production -- mounted in the backwash of Richard Nixon's resignation -- that other actresses feared to follow. The feisty Zellweger has no such qualms. Constantly fantasizing about her future (that's where the production numbers are now hatched -- in her mind), this delightfully self-absorbed Roxie not only shoots her nasty boyfriend (Dominic West) with great relish; she courts tabloid celebrity with a diligence that would shame Princess Di's butler. Why not parlay a teensy bit of homicide into a showbiz career? Especially if your well-dressed, overpriced lawyer (a surprisingly agile Richard Gere) has never lost a case and -- as these moviemakers would have it -- can turn defendant, press, and jury into his marionettes. You can't help imagining Johnny Cochran down at the multiplex, scribbling notes on his French cuffs.

The singing and dancing in this Chicago are uniformly splendid, right down to Gere's tap dancing. The high wit and dark eroticism Marshall brings to the famous "Cell Block Tango" number are matchless, and the excision of a tune or two (aficionados are sure to miss "Class") does nothing to diminish the excitement. Fresh from her star turn in Bridget Jones's Diary, Zellweger proves herself a great trouper, from the top of her pert blond bob to the bottoms of her shoes. Catherine Zeta-Jones, late of Traffic and America's Sweethearts, makes for a seductive Velma (the role Chita Rivera owned onstage), and hip-hop icon Queen Latifah has some great moments (alas, too brief) as the earthy, graft-ridden prison matron Mama Morton. The wonderful character man John C. Reilly, who has the face of a small-town shoe salesman and the manner of a shmo, plays Roxie's thoroughly baffled, foolishly loyal husband Amos to ideal effect.

Now Zellweger and Zeta-Jones may not be the first names that spring to mind when you think musical comedy, but they're perfect fits here, as it turns out. They sing lustily. They seduce. They dance up a storm. By the time Roxie and Velma reach their finale -- the show's bemused tribute to the American public's insatiable hunger for scandal -- any nagging thoughts the puritans in the house may have had about immorality have long since been swept away by an irresistible blur of naked leg. In the emerging celebrity culture of the 1920s, it says here, a smart Chicago lawyer and a ravenous pack of newspaper reporters could transform a criminal into a heroine at the drop of a fedora, then wait by the mailbox for the royalty checks to start rolling in. Well, sure. Absolutely. It's a lesson in personal reinvention learned very well by such disparate characters as Oliver North, Marc Fuhrman, or any half-dozen Watergate conspirators you can think of. After all, nothing changes in showbiz but the faces in the band.