Theatre buffs may be outraged that the film version of Chicago scraps the trademark choreography of Bob Fosse, but this miraculously resourceful movie is the best possible tribute to the late dance legend. Perhaps the best movie musical since Fosse's own Cabaret, it feels like a movie directed by Bob Fosse--which is high praise indeed.

Like Fosse, director Rob Marshall is also the choreographer here, and he's created an extravaganza that never stints on energy or invention--abetted by the very clever screenplay of Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters writer-director Bill Condon and the sensational songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb. The crowning touch is the casting; stars like Goldie Hawn and Madonna may have flirted with the project over the years, but unexpected leads Rene Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones are astonishingly good as the two murderesses who become a Windy City sensation.

First staged in 1975 and welcomed back to Broadway in a 1996 revival that's still going strong, Chicago is the musical retelling of the legend of Roxie Hart (Zellweger), a Prohibition-era showbiz wannabe who goes to prison for the shooting death of her callous lover. There, she meets her idol, Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), a vaudeville star who made headlines after she caught her sister with her lover and shot them both dead. Thanks to her devoted but unappreciated husband Amos, Roxie is able to retain the services of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), the slickest lawyer in Chi-town. Under Flynn's cynical tutelage, Roxie transforms herself into a winsome media darling, playing gullible reporters like a musical prodigy. But Roxie's quest to clear her name is filled with obstacles, including a jealous Velma and a pack of journalists always hungering for the next lurid sensation.

The stage production of Chicago is like a vaudeville revue, and Marshall and Condon have ingeniously adapted that format to film by having most of the numbers take place both in the real world and as Roxie's musical fantasies. The cross-cutting is sometimes relentless, but it sure gives the movie a dynamic drive. Unlike many movie musicals, there's never a dull moment in Chicago, as it segues from one showstopper to the next. The most spectacular is "Cell Block Tango," a muscular dance number in which five notorious (and leggy) femmes fatale re-enact the scenarios that drove them to off their lovers; Marshall's sinuous choreography and stark lighting and staging are breathtaking. Gere and especially Zellweger are terrific in "We Both Reached for the Gun," posing as a ventriloquist and his marionette in a deft illustration of Flynn's powers of media manipulation. Zeta-Jones proves herself a fabulous dancer in "I Can't Do It Alone," and Queen Latifah, as the imposing Matron Morton, rules the screen during her big solo, "When You're Good to Mama." Even busy character actor John C. Reilly, as the woebegone Amos, gets a great moment in the spotlight with his lament for neglected souls, "Mr. Cellophane."

Along with those dazzling numbers, the movie of Chicago boasts an exceptionally witty screenplay, filled with timelier-than-ever barbs at the media's obsession with celebrity scandal, the fleetingness of fame, and the vagaries of show biz. (When Roxie and Velma become a performing duo, Velma says of their mutual loathing, "There's only one business in the world where that's no problem at all.") In a uniformly fine cast, Zellweger deserves top marks for showing so many contrary colors of the mercurial Roxie Hart: manipulative, vulnerable, shrewd, na™ve, hard-bitten and adorable. Smart and rousing entertainment, Chicago is a hot time at the movies.

-Kevin Lally