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"THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO"
(2011) (Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Thriller: A disgraced journalist hires an unorthodox researcher to help him try to crack a decades old missing persons case.
PLOT:
Mikael Blomkvist (DANIEL CRAIG) is a journalist and magazine publisher in Stockholm who's just lost a libel case brought against him by wealthy investor Hans-Erik Wennerstrom (ULF FRIBERG). Wiped out financially and with his reputation tarnished, he agrees to a unique proposition offered to him by Henrik Vanger (CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER), a wealthy Swedish businessman.

The latter promises to deliver dirt on Wennerstrom -- as well as a fat paycheck -- if Mikael can solve a decades old missing persons case. The victim was Henrik's 16-year-old niece who disappeared back in the 1960s from their island town, and despite the family, the authorities and others searching for her, nothing was found.

Needing the money, and a chance not only to get away but also get back at Wennerstrom, Mikael takes the case under the guise of writing a biography on Henrik and sets out for the remote Hedestad Island. That's much to the dismay of his editor and current lover, Erika (ROBIN WRIGHT), who doesn't like that he'll be several hours away by train. Having been warned by Henrik about his highly dysfunctional family, Mikael begins working on the case, interviewing Henrik's middle-aged adult nephew, Martin (STELLAN SKARSGARD), among other family members, as well as those who worked the case decades ago.

Realizing he needs assistance, Mikael takes the advice of Henrik's attorney Dirch Frode (STEVEN BERKOFF) and hires Lisbeth Salander (ROONEY MARA) as his researcher. She's a young adult ward of the state whose appearance -- with her multiple piercings, tattoos and apparent anti-social demeanor -- would seem to make her stand out in the crowd. Yet, she has a surprising knack to infiltrate places to set up surveillance and her computer skills are second to none.

As the two continue digging and getting closer to revealing the truth that seems to point to a serial killer, they end up putting themselves at ever-increasing amounts of risk and peril.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Except in stories where they're the good central characters (or turn out to be some form of comic relief as occurred in the "Shrek" films), the appearance of dragons in movies usually isn't a good thing. The hero or heroine of any particular story has already set out on their quest when they run into such a ferocious beast and must avoid or slay it.

The dragon that shows up in director David Fincher's latest film isn't literal, except as tattooed on the back of one of the year's most mesmerizing cinematic characters. But the woman sporting that ink, one Lisbeth Salander, does get involved in a hero's quest, and while she might not breathe fire or fly on reptilian wings, she's sure to evoke fear or at least caution in those who encounter her.

Those familiar with Stieg Larsson's trilogy and the Swedish film adaptations of that will know I'm obviously talking about the first entry in that work: "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." I'll come clean and admit I haven't read any of those literary offerings or seen the original film, so anyone searching for analytic comparisons to them will need to look elsewhere. For everyone else, this is a compelling but not completely engaging film experience that has its share of strengths as well as weaknesses.

After spending his last effort going all Internet with the superlative "The Social Network," Fincher returns to the sort of genre pic that made a name for himself long ago with the likes of "Se7en" and "Zodiac." That, of course, is the deranged serial killer sort of tale that obviously isn't for all viewers and actually ends up being one of the film's weaker elements, mainly due to the feeling of retreading material the filmmaker and others have trodden upon quite enough in the past.

Until that part is eventually revealed and everything is explained in the usual Hollywood thriller fashion, the offering is decent enough (if certainly not for all tastes). That is, as long as the uninitiated can keep up with the quick introduction of characters and storylines following a fabulous, James Bond worthy opening credits sequence (scored to a new version of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song").

Speaking of Bond, none other than the latest actor inhabiting that role -- Daniel Craig -- plays the main character. No, not the Lisbeth part (although that would have required a stellar performance by him to pull off believably), but rather that of Mikael Blomkvist. In all of the somewhat rushed exposition, we learn he's lost a libel case regarding his journalistic reporting on a wealthy investor, that he's been having an affair with his editor (Robin Wright), and that a wealthy but retired businessman (Christopher Plummer) has hired him to investigate a decades old cold case involving his niece who went missing way back in 1966.

Screenwriter Steve Zaillian doesn't waste much time getting the ball rolling, but it did take me a little bit to catch up with the elements and rhythms he and Fincher have put into play. While the performances of everyone involved are fine and Fincher and his crew once again excel at all technical aspects of bringing this tale to the screen, I also had a bit of a hard time fully buying into Craig's character so easily accepting the proposition. And that's even considering the tantalizing aspect of some potential revenge against the aforementioned investor -- who's essentially ruined his life -- dangling in front of him.

However, I had no such problems with the Lisbeth character, and especially no issues with how Rooney Mara (who played Mark Zuckerberg's girlfriend in the opening of "Social Network") completely and utterly convincingly inhabits her. This easily could have been one of those "kick butt" tough chick types that some/most audiences love but often are more superhero than real, let alone believable.

Considering the financial, sexual, violent and antisocial aspects that the filmmakers have given the actress to bring to the part, however, this is an incredibly deep characterization that's nothing short of mesmerizing to behold. Craig might play the protagonist who drives the story forward, but it's Mara and her character who are the real stars.

The two actually work well together and her reintroduction to the story -- fairly well into the movie -- brings some energy into what's otherwise a rote investigation into a missing persons case that turns into a serial killer tale. That said, for reasons that don't make sense beyond going for the sensational (and predictable), the filmmakers have Mikael and Lisbeth end up in bed.

While I can buy into him doing that (after all, he bedded Wright's character while married), there's little believable motivation on her part to do so. Yes, she could be bisexual, but an earlier scene shows her lesbian tendencies, while an earlier rape (and her follow-up revenge) would seem to make her not so inclined to jump in the sack with another man.

By the time everything is resolved (and the villain explains his motivation while torturing the hero, yada-yada-yada) this ends up being a frustrating, mixed bag experience. While Fincher once again gets the mood and aura right, and Rooney is outstanding in her role, the plot and its related developments and revelations leaves a lot to be desired. But the dragon, or at least the young woman on which it resides, breathes life into the proceedings whenever she shows up. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 2, 2011 / Posted December 20, 2011


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