A film review by Craig J. Koban November 26, 2018

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB jj
 

2018, R, 117 mins.

 

Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander  /  Sverrir Gudnason as Mikael Blomkvist  /  Sylvia Hoeks as Camilla Salander  /  LaKeith Stanfield as Edwin Needham  /  Stephen Merchant as Frans Balder  /  Vicky Krieps as Erika Berger  /  Christopher Convery as August Balder  /  Claes Bang as Jan Holster

Directed by Fede Alvarez  /  Written by Alvarez, Jay Basu, Steven and Knight, based on the book of the same name by David Lagercrantz

 

 

 

Considering our current Me Too movement era, a cinematic return to THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO series would seem positively fitting.  

The franchise was born out of author Stieg Larsson's best selling literary works, which introduced the world to its ferociously empowered female hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander.  The novels spawned a Swedish film trilogy and featured Noomi Rapace in a career jump starting performance as Salander that put her on the map.  Her performance of raw animalistic potency allowed for this character to climb the upper echelon ladder as one of the most memorable female screen protagonists of recent memory.  Then came the inevitable David Fincher helmed American remake, which arguably was just as dark and oppressive as the international iteration and featured Rooney Mara in the Salander role, paying both respect to Rapace's work while making the role all her own in the process.   

Although I had my share of issues with Fincher's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I was impressed with his always confident stylistic trappings and how much unnerving edge the film had in comparison to the Swed import (it really pushed the boundaries of the R rating).  Unfortunately, tepid box office performance put the new proposed American series on hold, which, of course, leads me to the new installment THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB, which is both a soft reboot of the Fincher series in the sense that the entire cast and crew has been gutted, but nevertheless remains a direct follow-up sequel to the 2010 film.  This new retooled sequel takes its inspiration, like the previous films, from the book of the same name (this time not written by Larsson himself, but rather David Lagercrantz) and features DON'T BREATHE director Fede Alvarez pinch hitting for Fincher and Claire Foy as a Mara substitute for Salander.  Despite ample talent on board for this fifth DRAGON TATTOO film, it regretfully fails to capture the cerebral intrigue of its predecessors, not to mention that it distractingly soft pedals a re-brand of the tone and feel of the series into obligatory hacker thriller fare. 

 

 

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB continues the Lisbeth Salander Americanized saga, which takes place roughly three years after the events of Fincher's film and shows the titular protagonist working as a sort of nocturnal and in-the-shadows vigilante that achieves serious comeuppance on deplorable men that have wronged women in their lives in one nasty way or another (the opening scene shows her harnessing a vile corporate crook up by his legs and electronically transferring his assets to the wife that he routinely beats...followed by tasering him to the balls).  When not beating, humiliating, and tormented men that absolutely had it coming to them, Lisbeth still does hacker jobs on the side, and early on she's offered an extremely difficult job from a former NSA employee (a refreshingly cast against type Stephen Merchant) that wants Lisbeth to take back a special program called "Firewall" that gives its user the ability to fire any nuke in the world.  The former government man did, in fact, create it, but now regrets its power and it falling into the wrong hands. 

Things grow predictably more complicated for Lisbeth when it clearly appears that more people want this device, on both sides of the law, which leads to her hooking back up with her former partner and lover in journalist Mikael Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig before, now Sevrrir Gudnason), who agrees to once again assist Lisbeth and hopefully net a big story on his end.  Realizing that trusting anyone beyond Mikael is becoming increasingly difficult, Lisbeth finds herself working overtime to retrieve Firewall, eventually teaming up with a semi-rogue NSA agent, Edwin (SORRY TO BOTHER YOU's Lakeith Stanfeld), to uncover a vast conspiracy of nefarious enemies that want the program via an any-means-necessary approach, which eventually forces Lisbeth to come to grips with the real villain of the film (Sylvia Hoeks), who is revealed to have deep personal ties with Lisbeth that places her in a crisis of conscience unlike any she's experienced before. 

Two things make THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB a worthy franchise entry: (1) Solid production design and some wonderfully stylized visual flourishes and (2) Foy's quietly commanding presence in the lead role.  As for the former, Alvarez manages to mimic Fincher's overall aesthetic from his film while trying to cement this series in a more traditional spy film milieu (the opening title card sequence of this film, quite wonderfully orchestrated, has clear cut echoes of similar ones from the James Bond series).  The film also makes usage of its cold, wintering settings to proper atmospheric effect.  As for the former, Foy has the difficult performance challenge of trying to cement the Salander role as uniquely her own coming off the brilliant turns from Rapace and Mara respectively before her.  Salander remains as tough as nails and hungrily determined as ever, but Foy (so good recent in films like FIRST MAN and the underrated UNSANE) crafts a more understated portrait of this brilliant and tenacious hacker while still showing her vulnerable side.  Foy has a steely eyed focus here that's commendable and does the iconic character justice; she holds this film together. 

One of my main problems, though, with THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB, though, is with the presentation of the Salander character herself.  Foy gives it her all with what she's given here, but the screenplay essentially and frustratingly takes this persona far away from what made her really tick with intrigue beforehand.  In past films she was someone unfortunately characterized by sexual traumas that fought against her male scumbag persecutors.  That's what fuelled her feminist rage.  Now, she's essentially been reduced to a dime-a-dozen action super hero/vigilante that feels like she belongs in her own comic book inspired film.  That seems like an awful psychological step back for this character, and the overall 007-inspired espionage vibe on display seems incongruent with the true essence of this character and the films she's populating.  Even her hacker abilities - and near physical imperviousness at times - strains modest credulity throughout the movie, to the point of pulling me out of it and uncomfortably pushing me away.   

Another huge misstep is with the central relationship with Lisbeth and Mikael as well, which is kind of almost added in here as a short-sighted afterthought and not as fully developed and expanded upon as it should have been.  Now, I did find Daniel Craig somewhat miscast in Fincher's film (see my review of it for more detail as to why), so I kind of welcome the more regionally appropriate Gudnason in the role, but he's mournfully so vanilla bland and lacking in on-screen charisma that you have to wonder why he was cast in the first place (this is too bad, because he was quite sensational in the under seen BORG VS MCENROE from earlier this year).  Even though I thought Craig was a poor fit for this part, both he and Mara still had sizzling chemistry together, which is simply not on display between Gudnason and Foy, who seem to force themselves to make their on-again, off-again couple feel relatable authentic as a troubled duo. 

The script really does no one any favors this go around either, especially in relation to the reveal of the main baddie, which can be seen coming from a proverbial mile away (that, and it was unforgivably spoiled by the film's misguided and shockingly spoiler heavy trailer campaign).  The screenplay makes clear cut attempts to move away from being psychologically compelling and instead thrusts heavily into perfunctory action and global thriller mode, which seems like a misstep when one considers how the cat and mouse procedural elements of the other films helped pave the way.  Lastly, THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB simply doesn't have has much edgy nerve as the previous American and Swedish films and seems altogether reticent at exploring the darker underbelly of its characters, their dynamics, and the sickening family ordeals that typifies Lisbeth and, in turn, how that relates to the main villain.  Everything here seems to be moving along on safe and pedestrian autopilot, something that could never bee said about Fincher's remake or the Swedish trilogy. 

I can maybe understand the makers' intent here in wanting to make the further adventures of Lisbeth Salander more, shall we say, audience friendly and easy to digest for further box office gains.  Again, there's a James Bondification of this franchise that's sort of unwelcome as well as being tonally disingenuous.  More often than not, the Salander of THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB feels like she belongs more in her own darker MCU film than she does as a natural continuation of what has come before in her own series.  That's too bad, because Alvarez has got the goods as a filmmaker to make a worthwhile DRAGON TATTOO sequel, and Foy is such an exceptional headstrong and assured actress that she seems like a pitch perfect match for her body art laden heroine.  All of the previous films in this series have lingered and stayed with me, in one form or another.  They also got under my skin with their twisted perversity.  THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB feels pretty interchangeable with other globetrotting spy genre films these days that I probably won't be thinking about it much in the weeks to come, other than to recall it for being pretty flavorless and blandly generic.    

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