Film review: It's worth getting a second 'Tattoo'

As a general rule, roughly 99% of remakes fall somewhere between the awful and the utterly redundant — particularly when there was nothing wrong with the original. But, in Hollywood terms, there was one thing fatally wrong about the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”: Everyone in it was speaking Swedish.

When released here last year, it was very well reviewed (86% on Rotten Tomatoes) and made enough money to replace “My Life as a Dog” as the highest-grossing Swedish film of all time in the U.S. Why spend 10 times that amount to tell the same story again?

Amazingly, David Fincher's new version is worthy, even for those (myself included) who remain big fans of the original — a primarily Swedish production, though directed by the Danish Niels Arden Oplev. This is even more surprising, since Fincher doesn't bring the kind of entirely new perspective that justifies the best remakes (as John Carpenter did in his 1982 “The Thing” or Philip Kaufman in the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”).

What he does bring is a strong dose of his style — his “Seven” mode more than his “Social Network” mode — and at least one casting choice that justifies the whole enterprise.

Just in case you've somehow missed the whole phenomenon: When Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson died suddenly (at only 50), he left behind three novels — “Dragon Tattoo” and its two sequels — all of which, like the subsequent films, were huge bestsellers around the world.

The book focuses on disgraced muckraker Mikael Blomqvist, who forms an unlikely partnership with computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, a punkish, bisexual, flagrantly maladjusted genius in her 20s. They try to solve the 40-year-old murder of Harriet Vanger, favorite niece of retired industrialist Henrik Vanger.

The Swedish film version does a good job trimming a 600-page book to manageable size; and Oplev makes all the right decisions in casting and pacing. It's hard to discern a strong style, which may be appropriate since, judging from the translations, Larsson himself was no stylist. He constructed a fairly good mystery plot, but the real reason for his books' success is Salander. Whatever his shortcomings, Larsson created an indelible, potentially iconic character.

Noomi Rapace (who is the female lead in the new “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”) was so memorable as Salander that it was hard to imagine anyone else daring to take on the role. Indeed, there was a movement by fans to convince the American producers to use her.

Well, Rooney Mara fills Rapace's boots perfectly. It's not that she's better than Rapace; more that she's substantially different. Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian apparently decided to present a Salander more precisely like the character in the book, where she is presented as short, almost painfully thin, and attractive in odd ways. Rapace was too tall — it's jarring when a policeman describes her as 4 foot 11 — slender but not scrawny, and simply a little too conventionally pretty.

In real life, most of that could also be said about Mara — best known as Jesse Eisenberg's date in the opening sequence of Fincher's “Social Network” — but onscreen she comes across shorter, scrawnier and harsher-looking. Some of that is makeup and lighting, but just as much is her performance. Rapace's Salander was intriguing, sympathetic and formidable; Mara's is intriguing, sympathetic and at times downright scary. Even though (as the book described) she looks almost like a teenager, Mara brings a more feral quality to the part; when Salander is raped, early in the film, her resistance is like a channeling of Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” Part of what makes Salander so compelling is her combination of vulnerability and incredible power, which is far clearer here.

It's in the nature of the material — not in any failure of the other performers — that Salander more or less eclipses everyone else in both versions and in the books. Daniel Craig, who is perfect casting for Blomqvist, obviously knows that and seems to be wisely holding back. Christopher Plummer was the second-most-perfect choice as the old industrialist; the even-more-appropriate Max von Sydow was apparently unavailable.

Zaillian gives the script a good deal more humor, as well as cleaving closely to the book. There is only one real change in the story, right near the end. It's not all that big a change; and it makes more sense (at the cost of being a little less moving). On the down side, there are some unnecessary loose threads; one important setup — the one that opens the movie — no longer has a payoff, but you'd have to be a real Larsson buff to notice.

Because both the Swedish and American versions take their cues from the novel, many shots seem staged almost identically. In most of these cases, Fincher's take will be more atmospherically lit, with more extensive camera movement, and Trent Reznor's score gives another boost. These differences may be the result of the budget or of Fincher having a stronger style: But, in either case, it makes this “retread” more than worth the effort.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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