Who needs a female James Bond when we’ve already got “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” heroine Lisbeth Salander? Not only is she 007, Q, and M all rolled into one leather-clad package, but with the role’s third great iteration in eight years, the role has become a mantle that actresses like Noomi Rapace, Rooney Mara, and now Claire Foy, in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story” (the film’s full, very wordy title), can slip into and provide their own unique interpretation.
Foy is arguably the best yet, not quite as steely as Rapace, not quite as brittle as Mara, portraying Salander as coursing with emotion — mostly anger — but that feeling is controlled and channeled. “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is a two-fold passing of the torch for the series; director Fede Alvarez (“Don’t Breathe”) takes over from David Fincher while the story bypasses the remaining two books by creator Stieg Larsson in favor of one written by David Lagercrantz after Larsson’s untimely death. The result is a slick, propulsive, highly enjoyable thriller, albeit one that’s lost some of its specificity relative to other action movies.
The story kicks off when computer engineer Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) hires Salander to steal his own dangerous creation back from the American government, a program that enables a single user to take over and launch online missile systems. As soon as she steals this macguffin, thugs steal it from her while blowing up her home, setting off a frantic search not only for her laptop, but also for Balder and his young son, whose mind holds the key to unlocking the program. NSA agent Edwin Neeham (Lakeith Stanfield) soon joins the party, trying to recover the program for the Americans. It makes no sense why Neeham would act alone, but he’s pretty qualified for it, having somehow found time to serve in Army Special Forces and become a skilled hacker. Also present is journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), who’s been demoted from equal partner in the Fincher film to almost superfluous sidekick here, although he tips Lisbeth that the thieves are a brutal gang called the Spiders, led by a mysterious woman from Salander’s past played by Sylvia Hoeks.
Where “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” operated under an icy remove, mostly burrowing into one location, ‘Spider’s Web’ is more hot-blooded and kinetic, with Lisbeth constantly on the move after her home is blown up. 007 may seem like a lazy, and obvious, comparison, but the director himself admitted he wanted a Bondian “crazy spy thriller,” rather than the Agatha Christie mysterious tone of the first.
Accordingly, the movie has both the strengths and weaknesses of a good Bond movie, with creative, high concept action that romps through Sweden with destructive aplomb but moves a little too quickly for real character development. Vibrating with intensity, Foy’s Salander is a near-superhero, highly physically proficient and almost omniscient through her hacking skills, but Larsson’s Salander is defined as much by her scars as her strengths.
Her background as a queer avenger of women is present, but minimized, as are other potentially intriguing character dynamics that could separate Salander from Bond, such as Lisbeth being thrust into a caregiver role for the autistic young Balder. The Salander book series is distinctive for its focus on the violence and trauma perpetrated by men. And even though the primary villain in ‘Spider’s Web’ is another woman, their conflict is an echo of childhood abuse at the hands of abusive males.
Hoeks and Foy explore their feelings of betrayal and abandonment in a heated climax, but one wishes the script had made more time for it before then. Yet even with these missed opportunities, Alvarez’s version of Salander is far more of a fleshed out character than male action peers like ‘Mission: Impossible‘ hero Ethan Hunt or Bond (with the possible exception of “Skyfall,” a thematically similar movie involving a destructive visit home). Like any adaptation, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” loses a bit of individuality moving to the big screen, but it succeeds as a gripping, visually impressive thriller, with strong performances anchored by an explosive Claire Foy. [B]