Babel, The Assassination of Jesse James, Ocean's Thirteen: Brad Pitt is going to own 2007. He might even own an Oscar, too...

For the Chinese, 2007 is the year of the Pig. For moviegoers and keen observers of Hollywood minutiae, it's shaping up to be the year of the Pitt -- Brad Pitt. (Incidentally, Chinese New Year fans, Brad Pitt was born in the year of the Rabbit -- 1963 -- which makes him talented, ambitious, admired and possessing an uncanny knack for making the right choices. It also means he laps up gossip and never backs out of a contract, although Pitt's likely to snort at the former and Darren Aranofsky may contest the latter after the actor's abrupt 2002 departure locked The Fountain into limbo for a few years.)

Point is, Pitt's 2007 is shaping up very nicely, between the films he's appearing in (a small but vital role in January's incredible relevant Babel; a final teaming with the Rat Pack for Ocean's Thirteen; the titular Old West outlaw in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford), the projects he's producing through his Plan B outfit (Scorsese's biggest success in years, The Departed, may compete for Oscars) and globe-trottin activism with Angelina and the sprogs (the couple have joined forces to set up the Jolie/Pitt Foundation, and donated $10 million to charity by flogging photos of baby daughter Shiloh).

With most of his superstar peers otherwise occupied (Cruise in career salvage mode; Cage a workaholic with dubious taste; Crowe's "nice" makeover failing to convince), Pitt's got the playing field to himself. He's making the most of it, too, although Total Film's polite suggestion that he's been spreading himself a bit thin of late is just as politely rebuffed.

"Maybe it was turning 40," Pitt proposes, on a spotless LA afternoon in early October. Now 42 (43 on 18 Decemer if you want to send a card), he could pass for 35 going on 30. "Getting older just makes me more efficient and I can get the things done that I want to get done. Before, I probably meandered. In my younger days, I was more of a drifter.

"There were certain things I wanted to attack, and it seems to be working," he continues. "I'm very proud of the films I've got coming out." And so he should be. More on Babel later -- but the other two movies on Pitt's slate will quench different parts of our movie palates. Reteaming with Clooney, Soderbergh and the gang for Ocean's Thirteen will mainline a blockbuster sugar-rush, wit Danny's crew pitted for their final outing against Al Pacino's casino boss. "This one's going to be the one we shold have made last time," ventures Casey Affleck, Pitt's co-star in both Ocean's Thirteen and Assassination. "It's going to be a lot better than Ocean's Twelve. It's back in Vegas, for one thing, and it's going back to the Ocean's Eleven vibe, which is more fun in Vegas: it's the right place for these stories and characters."

On the flip side, Pitt calls Assassination, in which he headlines as notorious American bandit Jesse James, a serious meditation on one icon's private life and public exploits. "It deals with the mythology of celebrity and the hunt for that kind of notoriety, what''s behind that kind of life," he muses, literally stroking his chin. "Ultimately it deals with the consequences of it. And, of course, those themes relate to me due to my place in the tabloids mags!"

Assassination is the fifth film with the name Plan B seared on its credits. Launched in 2002 with ex Jennifer Aniston, who's no longer involved, Pitt's increasingly dynamic production company has just wrapped on the story of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, A Mighty Heart, starring Jolie. It's also pipelining plenty of other projects, including apocalyptic zombie movie World War Z and Marc Forster's Dallas Buyer's Club. Brad's even toying with the idea of starring in the latter, tempted by the part of a HIV-positive man seeking underground drug treatment. But back to the bigger picture...

"Producing opens a whole other aspect," he murmurs. "Now I get to work on films and with people that personally mean something to me." That's a change from last year when, around the release of Mr & Mrs Smith, Pitt declared he only had a few years left in the business because, "I'm interested in other things, like family." Now he's found a ready-made family: Jolie's two adopted children, Maddox and Zahara, plus their new daughter, born far, far away from prying lenses this past May in Namibia. "Three kids a year," laughs Pitt. "Next year we'll have six. Then nine. We're looking for a soccer team. I want to compete in the World Cup." The new family man feels resurgent and, after years of resenting paparazzi intrusion, wants to exploit his fame to turn the spotlight onto issues he cares about, like trade practices and AIDS orphans.

"I said a few years ago, and got in trouble for it, but I just wish everyone would screw everyone and we'd only have one colour," he muses. "That's an obnoxious way to say it, but I think there's a great value in it. On the adoption front, we're talking about the difference between a kid having a future and death. That was certainly the case with our daughter, Zahara. To me, that supersedes every other argument."

Is age making him smarter? No, because Pitt's had brains as well as buns since he first burst on the scene as Geena Davis' cowboy seducer in Thelma & Louise. But he is finally getting respect -- after a 16-year slog. Back then, he was regarded as sweet meat for the industry machine and could easily have been minced up with other '90s Hollywood himbos. Because the charge that's always been laid at Pitt's feet is that he's a moviestar of blessed DNA and moderate acting talent. but the fact that this born-and-bred Midwesterner has levitated above LA's handsome chaff speaks volumes for his grungy appeal to multiplex knicker-wavers.

And Pitt was wise to the pitfalls of beefcake stardom from the off, yawning, "One: it's boring. Two: it's stupid. And three: it's death." Thus, a pair of shrewd post-T&L choices set the template for his career. In A River Runs Through It, he turned in a modulated performance as a (wait for it) hell-raising fly fisherman. he then sullied that pretty-boy image with a grubby psycho turn in kalifornia, a sordid outing in which brad, while no De Niro, tackled his trashy serial killer with gusto.

And with that, Pitt was off, astutely mixing down'n'dirty projects with crowdpleasers. He took a stoner cameo in True Romance then followed it up with his first heartthrob role in Legends of the Fall. Then he chopped off those silky blond tresses to go edgy in Se7en and Twelve Monkeys.

But his sun-god image still laid traps for him, epitomised by 1998's Meet Joe Black, a dire misstep in which critics took a scorched-earth attitude to Pitt for playing a gorgeous incarnation of Death. For three gooey hours. "Vacant, mechanical and pretentious: what the Dalai Lama would be like reincarnated as an underwear model," was one of of the more benign assessments.

Pitt's reaction? The best role of his career -- Fight Club's pugilist antihero Tyler Durden. "It didn't seem gutsy to me at all," he said when asked if he was risking his career. "It seemed like it would be foolish not to do it." It was a career pinnacle he followed up with Snatch, in which, despite -- or perhaps because of -- his indecipherable Oirish brogue, he swipes the movie.

Hitting 40, Pitt made two films that impacted him in different ways. Ocean's Twelve was, on the face of it, even more of a lark than the first film, but the Amsterdam leg of the shoot brought Pitt face to face with an uncomfortable, post-Iraq reality. "I used to get around the city on a bike," he says, "and I had left the guys and gone out for a midnight ride. There were some guys coming out of a bar and I had to swerve out of the way to avoid hitting them. "I said, 'Excuse me,' and they started screaming, 'You fucking American! We'll fucking kill you!' I'd never come face-to-face with that before."

He also succumbed to his looks again by getting buff to play sleek Greek warrior Achilles in Troy. The project marked out Pitt as the reluctant superstar in action... and giving in again to the Hollywood machine seemed to sap his soul. He even briefly talked about quitting acting. Not seriously, he now insists to Total Film: "I think it was more about finding other things."

It's no surprise that Pitt jumped when Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu rang with Babel on his mind. He asked Brad to play a rich American who's put through the trauma wringer when his wife (Cate Blanchett) is shot in Morocco. Sure, there was the prestige of working with an acclaimed filmmaker; but, crucially, it was the chance to play, for the first time in his career, old -- a 49 year-old man with grey hair and haggard eyes. He pulls it off, too, bristling with authenticity next to an actress who radiates genius.

"It was a big relief to finally work with Brad," coos Blanchett. "The great thing about brad is that he's so buoyant. When you're entering into something that's deeply tagic and weighty like Babel, the best way to go into it is with a moment of hilarity. That would happen often with Brad." "We had to drive an hour to get to this village and it was in the middle of this lunar landscape," Pitt says, referring to the Moroccan shoot. "They didn't have electricity; we brought it in for the film and we left it there afterwards. But it's a very intimate scene between me and Cate, and that goes back to Alejandro and Guillermo {Arriaga)'s writing."

More importantly from Pitt's point of view, babel feeds into his new role as global humanitarian campaigner. "The work has to seep into acting in some way," he says. "Maybe not Ocean's Thirteen, but this film certainly. Where Babel succeeds, I think, is this undercurrent that we're all the same, and that it's our lack of will to understand each other that separates us. The base issue is equality: a family living in a hut in Africa who have to go five miles to get their water are loking for the same kind of dignity and opportunity for their kids as I am."

So does that mean Pitt's off the dreamboat grid for good now? The years of trying to shatter his pin-up reputation are paying off, and Pitt is suddenly being showered with the respect he's always craved. Clubbing together with Clooney and Soderbergh for the ultra-hip Ocean's Eleven boosted his cool quotient, and Plan B is taking over where that duo's now-defunct Section Eight left off, pushing smart, politically aware projects (and the odd edgy thriller like The Departed). There's also no question he's improving before our eyes as an actor. Pitt's psychotic in Twelve Monkeys is his only Oscar nom to date, but don't be staggered if he strolls up to the Oscar podium next march for Babel; 2007 is set to be his year, after all.

All that, and he's still one of the best looking men on the planet. "Next to that kid," Dustin Hoffman once said, "we all look like onions."