Today's comic-book blockbusters pay a lot of lip service to the strangeness and torment of their split-personality heroes, but let's be honest: Beneath their bug and bat suits, these are pretty straight guys. Just because Tobey Maguire has a few problems shooting off his web in ''Spider-Man 2'' doesn't mean that his love is anything but pure. Catwoman, however, serves up a lonely costumed female savior, and you can feel what the pressure has done to her. Catwoman, a purring whippersnapper vixen who leaps around balconies and buildings like a jungle predator, isn't just an alter ego. She's a superfreak, a good-time bad girl whose kinky strength -- her banishment of all that's passive and fearful -- is also her craziness. She may not be a villain this time around, but she still thinks like one. She's a crime fighter who has snapped.
Halle Berry, in shiny ruby lips, bare-backed dominatrix leathers, and a pointy-eared Egyptian mask, looks sensational, and she gives Catwoman an outrageous sex-panther strut as well as a happy coo of a snarl. What really puts her over, though, is her startlingly sinuous kitty-cat posture: pelvis thrust, midriff sucked back, shoulders out, head lolling to the side. It's as if her center of gravity were double-jointed. This, it seems, is what a life of pent-up aggression will do to a girl.
Berry starts out as Patience Philips, a fluttery art designer for Hedare cosmetics, which is run by the haughty George Hedare (Lambert Wilson) and his aging -- and therefore resentful -- supermodel wife, Laurel (Sharon Stone). After Patience stumbles onto secret information that the company's about-to-be-launched skin cream is toxic, she gets dumped into a river and is reborn, courtesy of a mystical Mau cat she had previously rescued. When Patience, as Catwoman, slinks into a nightclub and orders a White Russian minus everything but the cream (which she then licks off her upper lip), or when she gets hunky detective Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt) within reach of her jeweled talons, the movie gives off the funky twinkle of a very naughty sex comedy. Throwing her paws over her head, as if she'd like to be cat-cuffed, Catwoman lets Lone know that she's game for just about anything. Berry makes her so erotically empowered that she's funny, but her I'm-a-demon-vamp-and-loving-it performance deserved a far superior movie.
The director is a French graduate of TV commercials who bills himself as Pitof, and my assessment of his abilities is simple: Pitof, you're no McG. ''Catwoman'' includes a few fun fight scenes in which our feline fatale twirls and kicks like Charlie's Baddest Angel, but most of the movie has the cruddy lighting and generic, death-by-franchise atmosphere of a third-rate spectacle that's been worked over by too many hacks.
I wouldn't call ''Catwoman'' incompetent, yet it has no visual grandeur, and very little surprise; you can tick off the story beats as if they'd been graphed. As for Sharon Stone, cast as a woman who appears to be principally furious over having been cursed with Toni Collette's hair, she certainly makes a colorful impression as the villainous cosmetics bitch, if only because her sexiness has grown so disturbingly hard. Her cold porcelain is no match for Catwoman's hot taffy. If there's a sequel, I hope it's a better meow mix.