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<i>The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo</i>: Rhymes With Schmoring

When it was first announced that David Fincher had signed on to helm an American version of Swedish author Stieg Larsson's absurdly popular crime thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, my chief fear was that the resulting film would be Fincher's Ron Howard movie; i.e., a by-the-book adaptation of a bestseller (The Da Vinci Code, in Howard's case) that put profit first and artistry second. The other wrinkle Fincher faced (which Howard didn't) was that a perfectly serviceable (and quite faithful) film adaptation of Dragon Tattoo already existed -- a 2009 Swedish-language picture directed by Niels Arden Oplev and starring Noomi Rapace as the titular heroine, leather-clad, heavily-pierced hacker extraordinaire, Lisbeth Salander. So unless the Fight Club director was prepared to do some radical re-working of the novel -- thus pissing off its legions of fans -- it seemed as if his prodigious talents were going to be wasted on a project that would, at best, be a straightforward slice of pulp fiction or, at worse, a warmed-over rehash of too-familiar material.

Obviously, I should have trusted Fincher a little bit more. Perhaps not surprisingly, the new Dragon Tattoo turns out to be a far more artful movie than its predecessor and light years removed from the bland, impersonal book-on-film that The Da Vinci Code was. Shooting on location in Sweden, Fincher's carefully composed wide-screen frames complement the chilly desolation of the remote island where much of the action takes place. His visual style also emphasizes the isolation of Larsson's two central heroes, Lisbeth (played here by Rooney Mara) and crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, taking over a role originated by Michael Nyqvist, who can currently be seen playing spy vs. spy with Tom Cruise in the fourth Mission: Impossible movie).

Because this is a Hollywood production after all, both of the leads are more conventionally attractive than their Swedish counterparts, but the actors prove to be a good fit for their roles. Craig smartly avoids any Bond-style heroics as Blomkvist, playing him as an all-too-ordinary guy who isn't quite a match for the extraordinary circumstances he finds himself in. And since Mara is noticeably younger than Rapace, her Lisbeth has an inherent vulnerability that enhances the character in some ways and detracts in others. For example, this time around the affair that develops between Salander and Blomkvist carries a tinge of romance that was largely absent in the earlier movie; Rapace's Lisbeth used Mikael as a human vibrator -- Mara's hacker kinda sorta falls for the guy. While this change is apparently in keeping with the book, it's a more predictable dynamic for the characters. On the other hand, Rapace was so steely in the part that Lisbeth came across like a comic-book vigilante that had been carved out of iron. In Mara's hands, it's easier to see the frightened, damaged child that hides behind Salander's imposing exterior. There are still comic-book elements to the role -- the leather uniform, the sweet ride (a zippy motorcycle), her photographic memory -- but overall the difference between Rapace and Mara can be perhaps best summarized as the difference between Frank Miller's Batman and Jeph Loeb's Batman (comic book fans will understand the distinction).

I don't really need to bother with a full plot synopsis, right? Let's just go with a thumbnail recap: After a libel suit leaves him in disgrace, Blomkvist is hired by the elderly scion (Christopher Plummer, distinguished in a small role) of a prominent Swedish family to investigate a crime from the clan's troubled past. Meanwhile, Salander -- still technically a ward of the state due to her troubled upbringing -- plans and carries out a vicious (though, as some will no doubt argue, entirely justified) act of revenge against her abusive new guardian. Eventually, these parallel narratives meet when Blomkvist hires the tech-savvy Salander to aid him in his sleuthing and, in return, she later helps him take down the corrupt businessman that ruined his reputation. In other words, it's standard potboiler stuff and Fincher, for all of his technical prowess, can't -- and doesn't really attempt to -- elevate it beyond that. While it feels churlish to complain about a genre piece that's been executed with such precise craft, I have to confess that, in both versions, I've found Dragon Tattoo's plot profoundly boring (for the record, I haven't read Larsson's book and neither movie has convinced me that I'm missing anything).

Chief among the story's flaws is the way it keeps Salander and Blomkvist apart for a good chunk of the narrative, finally bringing them together about 90 minutes in. Once they do meet, their odd couple chemistry thankfully sparks the routine proceedings to life, but inevitably the grinding mechanics of the mystery shoves their personalities to the backburner. The movie also lacks the paranoid atmosphere and overarching theme of obsession that distinguished Fincher's last foray into the realm of crime thrillers, the superb Zodiac as well as the propulsive dialogue the fueled The Social Network, which played like a procedural in many ways. Dragon Tattoo feels far more like a technical exercise on his part, as if he's trying to show the studios that he's eminently capable of making a middle-of-the-road adult blockbuster in between more provocative and riskier fare. It's his version of comfort food... albeit with a small pinch of sadism to season the mix.

Rape, torture, fire, animals, religion... Trailers Without Pity celebrates the holidays with Dragon Tattoo in this video:

Click here to read our interview with David Fincher and the rest of the film's cast

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