The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stephenie Meyer's not the only novelist moving millions upon millions of copies these days. So is Stieg Larsson, although he sadly died before his books saw print.

Nonetheless, the Swedish author became an instant crime favorite with "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," first published on these shores in 2008. "The Girl Who Played with Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" soon followed, international best-sellers all. Director David Fincher is prepping "Tattoo" for an American adaptation, but Larsson's homeland already beat him to the punch, releasing all three movie versions last year overseas to big box office and critical acclaim.

As "Tattoo" opens, high-minded magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is found guilty of libeling a corporate bigwig. With his honor now sullied in the public eye, Mikael takes a most unusual freelance gig from the aged, wealthy Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube).

Forty years ago, Henrik's beloved niece, Harriet, abruptly disappeared, never to return. She's assumed dead, possibly even murdered by a member of his own family "? someone who's toying with him to this day. Henrik hires Mikael to stay on his island estate for a year, to crack away at this cold case so the old man's curiosity can be assuaged before departing this earth.

Meanwhile, punky, funky computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is tasked with digging up dirt on Mikael for the supposedly libeled industrialist. Checking out the journo's e-mails and hard drive, she senses what he's up to and becomes an ally (and, occasionally, a bed partner).

Our mismatched Woodward and Bernstein quickly dig up Vanger family secrets of the past that still poke at the nerves of the clan's current members. Suddenly, prison seems more comfortable than the constant threat of death hanging over their every move.

Admittedly, director Niels Arden Oplev spends a little too much time setting up the story, but once it gets going, immersion is a near-guarantee. The mystery unfolds at a teasing pace, doled out in small scoops to keep audiences strung along for the duration.

Yet in hindsight, while absorbing, the plot's not all that complex. The strength of "Tattoo" lay not in cleverness or concept, but character. And, in particular, Lisbeth.

A damaged-goods delinquent hiding a past of abuse behind heavy eyeliner, an emo haircut and a perpetual frown, she is rough, tough and not to be effed with. When wronged by the lawyer in charge of her bank account, the inked, pierced young woman takes revenge in a manner that will make many audience members squirm (even if the details of the act, thankfully, are left just out of frame). Rapace disappears into the role; even as you side with her, you fear her.

With the intelligent action of "Tattoo," Swedish cinema can shed its stuffy reputation of Death playing chess on the beach. It, too, can do widescreen thrills. While this offering may not quite equal the catch-your-breath factor as France's recent "Tell No One," it proves that the other side of the world can do goose bumps as skillfully as Americans. (Although I have a sneaking suspicion that given his track record in the genre "? from "Seven" to "Zodiac" "? Fincher is going to do it even better.) "?Rod Lott

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