''It is curious; one never thinks of attaching 'Hamlet' to any special locale,'' the critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Shakespeare's tragedy, and the director Michael Almereyda has brilliantly seized upon that by rooting his voluptuous and rewarding new adaptation of the play in today's Manhattan. The city's contradictions of beauty and squalor give the movie a sense of place -- it makes the best use of the Guggenheim Museum you'll ever see in a film -- and New York becomes a complex character in this vital and sharply intelligent film.
Mr. Almereyda contours the material to his own needs, even though he was inspired by the 1987 ''Hamlet Goes Business,'' a deadpan update by the renegade Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. This ''Hamlet'' is also set in the corporate world, where Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) has risen to the top of the Denmark Corporation.
But where Mr. Kaurismaki presented his take as a slapstick tragedy that bordered on sadism, Mr. Almereyda layers his cool-to-the-touch version with a luxuriant paranoia compounded by the constant deployment of video cameras and listening devices.
Often shaded in lush, soothing hues of blue, ''Hamlet'' exudes an intoxicating masochism in which half the cast is battling despondency and the other half has the glint of imminent insanity. As insightfully played by Diane Venora, Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, is in danger of breaking down into a fine, distraught powder from the outset. In this version, the melancholy of Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) over the death of his father is almost a state of grace; it gives him a sense of purpose that the other characters lack.
Mr. Almereyda has created a new standard for adaptations of Shakespeare, starting with an understanding of the emotional pull of the material that corresponds with its new period and setting. Hamlet's soliloquies are now interior monologues except for the ''To be or not to be'' speech, which he delivers in a Blockbuster video store, using the blue in the company logo and the word ''Action'' emblazoned on the shelves to fit in with the mood and color of the rest of the picture.
The director's rigorous trimming has a boldness and vivacity that makes this version exhilarating while leaving Shakespeare's language and intent intact. The use of colors -- its palette is red, green and the aforementioned blue -- is a visual manifestation of the streamlining. This movie will send shivers of happiness through audiences because it's one of the few American productions of ''Hamlet'' constructed around the rhythms of the actors, giving each scene a different pulse.
Mr. Almereyda plays to his performers' strengths, and it's awe inspiring. The truly revelatory performance comes from the ravaged dignity that Bill Murray lends Polonius, a weary, middle-aged man whose every utterance sounds like a homily he should believe in and perhaps did many years ago. Mr. Murray takes the bemused hollowness he first discovered in sketch comedy and gives it a worn, saddened undercurrent; it's what those bullying cynics he plays in comedies would be like in real life after about 20 years. The speech Polonius gives to his son, Laertes (Liev Schreiber), has a truth that ''Death of a Salesman'' can only aspire to and certifies Mr. Murray -- who's been giving fully shaped performances in bad or little-seen movies for years -- as one of the finest actors currently working. ''Madam, I use no art at all,'' he says at one point, and it's true; he uses apparent artlessness to achieve art.
It's not just Mr. Murray and Ms. Venora who are worth watching. Mr. MacLachlan's Claudius has a hail-fellow-well-met shallowness, a blandness tinged with creeping ambition. Mr. Schreiber is all lovely Old World elegance; he uses his resonant, trained voice to find the injured quality of lines like ''You wound me, sir,'' and offers a classical turn in the midst of the modernity. Steve Zahn plays Rosencrantz as slacker-weasel with a blurry twang that is just what's called for here. And Karl Geary is a steadfast, affecting Horatio.
Conceptually, ''Hamlet'' has all the goods and then some. Oddly enough, the title character is a little lacking in complication. Mr. Hawke's laudable commitment to the project was obviously responsible for getting it made, and his feline transparency would appear to be right for a Hamlet wrestling with the urge to kill Claudius and avenge his father's death.
But this Hamlet, wearing knit caps that make him look like a lost member of the Spin Doctors, is mired in an arrested adolescence that infantilizes him. For this conception to be fully realized, Hamlet's interior monologues shouldn't so fully mirror what's going on with him outwardly; a contrast would have provided some tension. Mr. Hawke's moping slows things down too much, and a clip from a James Dean movie playing behind him emphasizes the self-pitying aspect.
Julia Stiles plays Ophelia, and this may be the first time in her brief film career that this wildly talented young actress has seemed immature. ''Hamlet'' exploits her youth effectively: Polonius laces up her sneakers as he addresses her. But Ms. Stiles seems too much a child and often can't get her footing as the production sprints past her. Her natural onscreen empathy does allow for several moments that get under the skin: Ophelia plunges into an azure pool, imagining her death; she's often photographed at some of the most beautiful fountains and water spouts in New York. And when distraught, she dissolves into sobs, flinging Polaroids as if they were flower petals; it's heart-rending. The scenes she has with Mr. Hawke with a conventional and definable give-and-take also serve her well.
Little of Mr. Almereyda's previous films (''Another Girl, Another Planet,'' ''Nadja''), which are often dizzy with promise, suggested that he had the technique and imagination he brings to bear here. It's incredibly satisfying to see a director grow in the ways that he has. The ''Romeo and Juliet'' director Baz Luhrmann fired his camera out of the barrel of a gun, and the overdirected velocity was a moviemaker's equivalent of a collection of nervous tics; Mr. Almereyda's audacity comes in problem solving, one of the true functions of a director.
Whereas Mr. Luhrmann's dazzle is all from the outside, Mr. Almereyda goes to the heart of things and has given Shakespeare a distinctively American perspective. ''Hamlet'' is a movie about urban isolation and the damage it causes, using corrupted wealth as a surrogate for stained royalty.
To develop the distrust and miscommunication -- a contemporary spin on the Shakespearean theme of people being out of touch with their natural environments -- bits of dialogue are filtered through other sources, like overheard phone conversations. Mr. Almereyda's use of technology is fascinating and well thought out; Hamlet's dead father (Sam Shepard), for example, is first glimpsed on video screens. Hamlet's ''get thee to a nunnery'' speech to Ophelia becomes an unrelenting tantrum; it follows her home and continues to attack her when she turns on her answering machine.
You'll also catch snatches of material out of the corner of your eye, like Jeffrey Wright's cameo as the Gravedigger singing ''All Along the Watchtower,'' a piece of pop music that was made for Shakespeare: ''There must be some kind of way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief.''
So much of the play is pleasurably recast -- like a snapshot of Fortinbras on a television screen as the Player King, now a news anchor, wraps things up -- that Mr. Almereyda has created a hunger for more. In so many ways, ''Hamlet'' is a palpable hit, or it should be.