'Catwoman' Should Be Worse, 'Bourne' Supreme, 'Darko' Thankfully Back, By Kurt Loder

It's not a good sign when you find yourself wishing a movie had the vulgar pizzazz of something a little bit worse.

Because "Catwoman" isn't as bad as you might have expected, it's not as much fun as it might have been. Approached with the right sort of cinematic ineptitude, this story about a girl who goes all feline after being breathed upon by a weird cat and then sets out to foil a nefarious plot involving bad beauty cream -- well, in the right hands, this could have been a mirth bomb for the ages. But no. "Catwoman" is a little too clever and a little too well-executed -- or at least expensively executed -- to pass as classic dreck. Plus it stars Halle Berry in the title role, strapped into a black leather catsuit straight out of an old 42nd Street bondage reel, and this tends to short-circuit critical contemplation of the film's inadequacies. At first, anyway.

Berry plays Patience Philips, a shy, aspiring New York artist who pays the rent by working in the ad department of a big cosmetics company called Hedare. The story begins, as she says in an opening voice-over, "on the day that I died." First she encounters a strange cat (an Egyptian mau, it turns out -- a breed that was once revered by pharaohs). In the course of attempting to rescue this brooding quadruped from a precarious perch outside her living-room window, Patience attracts the attention of a passing police detective, Tom Lone. (Tomcat? Counting up the various catnaps, cat fights and catty remarks that pass through this picture is one of its more enjoyable diversions.) In the process of assisting Patience, Tom (played by Benjamin Bratt) winds up in her apartment, and we know they're going to hit it off when he looks at one of her paintings and says, "Kind of reminds me of early Chagall -- elegant, but whimsical." Any other woman might have smacked him, but Patience is smitten.

Cut to the headquarters of the Hedare company, where Patience is working on the ad campaign for a revolutionary anti-aging beauty cream called Beau-Line. (Bee-o-leen is how the employees say it. I wondered at first why the filmmakers hadn't imported a French person to correct this mangled pronunciation; then I realized that the director -- a man who goes by the name Pitof -- is French himself, and that the head of the beauty company is played by the French actor Lambert Wilson, his trademark sneer still in place after heavy use in the last two "Matrix" movies, in which he portrayed that tiresome character called "The Merovingian.")

When Patience learns that Beau-Line is addictive, and will turn a consumer's skin into "living marble," she is marked for death. But she doesn't die. Well, she sort of dies, but she's reborn -- as a cat. Or a catlike person, anyway. She starts hissing at dogs and gorging on sushi and saying things like "Purrr-fect." This, I admit, is pretty funny. She also starts doing things I don't think cats are actually capable of, like crawling across ceilings and knocking down doors. But I guess that's okay in a movie in which we're initially expected to accept that somebody who looks like Halle Berry can't get a date.

Implausibilities aren't the problem in a comic-book picture like this. The problem is that the movie seems so bloodless and second-hand: The fight scenes, however elaborate, are essentially standard-issue slam-bang; and the swooping shots of Catwoman pouncing across rooftops are pure "Spider-Man." And although director Pitof is best known (in France, anyway) as a digital-effects supervisor (this is only the second movie he's directed), the CGI is sometimes limp: Much of what passes for Manhattan here is plainly fake, and at least one closeup of a cat's head looks like it was scanned off a greeting card.

"Catwoman" isn't a bad movie. Halle Berry clearly savors this sort of action role; and while she can't manage much romantic chemistry with Benjamin Bratt, she does shoot off some sparks -- and some ferocious jump-kicks -- with Sharon Stone, as a bitter, discarded trophy wife who is, shall we say, not a cat person. It's not a bad movie; but it's not a good sign when you find yourself wishing it had the desperate invention, the vulgar pizzazz, of something a little bit worse.

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"The Bourne Identity" was one of the biggest-grossing movies of 2002, and just so you'll know I have no idea what I'm talking about, I thought it was an incoherent mess -- a monument to the mind-numbing ideal of action for action's sake. (Squeal. Scream. Skid. Shoot. Repeat, repeat, repeat.) I thought Matt Damon, however ostentatiously pumped-up, was still too winsome for a hardboiled assassin; and the German actress Franka Potente -- so breathlessly effective in the 1998 film "Run Lola Run" -- seemed drained of charisma, almost becalmed. I really didn't like this picture.

How startling, then, to discover that the sequel, "The Bourne Supremacy," is a spectacularly gratifying action thriller, a spy-chase epic fueled by sheer, giddy exuberance, beautifully filmed and bristling with an almost documentary immediacy. The British director, Paul Greengrass (replacing Doug Liman, who did "The Bourne Identity"), is in fact an award-winning documentarian, and he also has an intimate understanding of real-world spy games, having co-written the famous 1988 book "Spycatcher," a non-fiction account of the Soviet Union's Cold-War-era penetration of British intelligence.

The movie begins in sun-baked Goa, on the west coast of India, where Jason Bourne, rogue CIA assassin, is still trying to recover his trauma-purged memories of all the terrible and violent things he's done. His girlfriend, Marie, is still with him, but -- please avert your eyes if you don't want to know this -- not for long. (In fact, the manner of her departure provides one of the picture's most eerily beautiful images.)

This opening sequence is uncharacteristically uneventful, but the lack of action is brief. When a Russian secret-service killer arrives in Goa to take Bourne out, the movie erupts into a spy chase all across Europe, from Berlin to Naples, London, Amsterdam, Munich and Moscow. (Like the original James Bond movies of the 1960s, the "Bourne" films offer the sedentary viewer a delightfully unearned sensation of having gone someplace swell without actually having gone any place at all.)

Bourne doesn't know exactly who is trying to kill him, but he's beginning to get a vague idea and he trains his sights on a cell of CIA operatives in Berlin -- a terse, laptop-tapping group of people who happen to be tracking him. In the course of making their job a living hell, Jason does many more terrible and violent things -- and a number of very clever things, too, especially in whamming his way out of an airport interrogation room, where he pulls off a cell-phone stunt so dazzlingly brilliant, I'm not even sure what it was. The man is brimming with nasty tricks. How best to blow up an apartment in a pinch? Flip on the gas in the kitchen, stick a rolled-up newspaper in the toaster, and beat it. Boom.

The chop-editing of movie fight scenes is a jaw-slackening cliché by now, but the raging battles of "The Bourne Supremacy" are sliced up and slapped back together in a hyper-impressionistic way that really grabs you. The director's vivid repertoire of blurred and blocked shots lends an uncanny immediacy to every action scene -- you feel like you've been shoved into the middle of a crowd, like somebody's really trying to kick your face in. (This is almost certainly the best way to experience these things.) There's also an extended car chase that may be the wildest ride since "The French Connection," the 1971 crime classic that pretty much defined modern car-chase mayhem. When this incredibly intricate sequence came to an end, at the press screening I attended, the audience actually broke into applause. And these were the kind of people who go to press screenings -- which is to say, press people. The only kind of thing they generally applaud is a free round on the house.

Spy movies have traditionally required identifiable (that is, easily stereotyped) villains. During World War II, the bad guys were German or Japanese operatives. In the Cold War period that followed, the heavies became Russian and East German and sometimes Chinese. Today, the "enemy" is more amorphous. Al Qaeda terrorists might be drafted to embody evil for a new generation of spy flicks, but stereotyping objections would no doubt quickly be raised. (How times have changed.) What odious opponents are there left to subdue? The "Bourne" movies (like the Harry Palmer spy capers of the 1960s, actually) suggest the spies themselves, beady-eyed schemers ever intent on manipulating and misinforming and maybe even murdering one another. The hero is the guy who out-schemes everybody else. He might be a good guy, he might not. Jason Bourne, loose-cannon killing machine, would seem to be of the latter inclination.

It's good to see the spy movie so excitingly retrieved from the moribund precinct of the Bond films. It's good to have, once again, a thriller that really is thrilling, that snaps your head back with its full-frontal assault. The first "Bourne" movie failed in its mission, I thought. The sequel, though, goes the distance. There may be even more intense espionage-action movies in the pipeline, who knows? For the moment, though, this "Bourne" -- jeez, I wish I could resist saying it -- is supreme.

* * * *

"Donnie Darko," the first great cult movie of the new millennium, was released in the fall of 2001, and promptly bombed. A first feature by the 26-year-old director Richard Kelly, "Darko" defied concise summarization, or even straightforward explanation. It was surreal and unsettling, and deeply affecting. But what was it? And what was that six-foot-tall rabbit doing in it?

The movie died a barely noticed death at the box office, but it lived on in video stores, attracting a fascinated and ever-growing audience. Belatedly released in England last year, it spawned a huge hit single off its soundtrack with Gary Jules' cover of the Tears for Fears song "Mad World." Thus the post-mortem buzz on the movie kept building, and finally Kelly was able to get backing to re-release it -- but this time in the form he'd originally envisioned: 20 minutes longer than the original version, with new visual effects and new music added in.

Plenty has already been written about "Donnie Darko," not a whole lot of it very illuminating, and I can't see there's any need for me to add "disturbing" and "glorious" and "heartbreaking" to the blizzard of well-intentioned adjectives with which this one-of-a-kind movie has already been festooned. The newly expanded "director's cut" of the film is opening in some major cities this weekend. If yours is a city of the non-major variety, I can only say that this is a movie that's worth taking a long drive to see.