By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

“I want you to help me catch a killer of women.”

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Thus does one major character engage another in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Only this time he says it in English. And to one of the most vivid and iconic characters in movie history.

Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, currently on movie screens in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, was so magnificent as the female lead in the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that it seemed that no one could possibly replace her.

Her tough, tattooed, pierced, antisocial, bisexual computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, was astonishing and indelible.

(3 stars out of 4)

So when Rooney Mara — relatively unknown but for her small role in the first scene of The Social Network — was cast in the coveted role in the high-profile American remake, it seemed like a downgrade.

Well, not so fast.

If Mara isn’t quite as overwhelming and riveting as Rapace was in the role, she sure is close, delivering Oscar-caliber work in what turns out to be a taut, tense thriller.

No, this English-language redo of the pulpy thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on the international best-seller by Stieg Larsson (the original title of which, interestingly enough, translated as, “Men Who Hate Women”), doesn’t have quite the suffocating suspense or emotional impact of the original, but for anyone who missed out on that masterful, subtitled gem, this is a respectable, stimulating substitute.

Daniel Craig stars as Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist in Stockholm who has recently been duped, discredited, and disgraced in a libel suit.

He’s summoned by Henrik Vanger, an industrialist patriarch played by Christopher Plummer, to his wealthy family’s snowy private island, ostensibly to write a biography of Vanger and a history of the powerful and eccentric Vanger clan, but ultimately to look into the disappearance of Vanger’s grand-niece under mysterious circumstances 40 years ago.

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So Mikael engages Lisbeth to use her skills to help him dig into just what happened.

Was it murder?

In the supporting cast, Robin Wright plays Mikael’s married Millenium magazine editor and sometimes lover; Stellan Skarsgard the brother of the long-missing young woman; and Joely Richardson is a Vanger cousin whom Mikael interviews.

Accomplished director David Fincher (The Social Network, Zodiac, Se7en, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fight Club) maintains the foreboding atmospherics, violent creepiness, chilly menace, and dark, stark brutality that define the “bleak chic” style that we have come to associate with him.  At the same time, however, the R-rated film that he delivers is less sexually explicit than the Swedish version.

The screenplay by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), who also served as an executive producer, explores physical and emotional abuse, abiding corruption, and the limitations of retribution, featuring lots of parallel cutting between storylines and locations, and ultimately celebrates intrepid investigative journalism with a narrative that’s complex but accessible.

What it doesn’t accomplish that the original did is to get us urgently curious about the solution to the mystery that triggers the plot.  And because we’re not heavily invested in it, the ultimate revelation registers anticlimactically: it’s generically cathartic, but neither startling nor truly satisfying.

This remake has — perhaps surprisingly, considering Fincher’s résumé — softer edges and is certainly not as richly suspenseful, hypnotic, or unnerving as the original.  But it’s still commandingly absorbing until it falters into escapist movie-movie territory toward the end.

Craig is efficient and effective, but it’s Mara’s angry, abused Salander whom we can’t take our eyes off and who stays with us long after the film ends.  She should surely be in the mix at Oscar nomination time.

Next up: an English-language remake of The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second film in the Swedish trilogy based on the second book in author Larsson’s Millenium trilogy.

Craig, Mara, and Zaillian are already committed. As to Fincher, time and commercial success and other projects will tell.

So we’ll investigate 3 stars out of 4 for the suspenseful sexism-and-social-injustice saga, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Not quite up to the lofty level of accomplishment of the Swedish version, but an icily effective thriller in its own right.

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