As Sherlock Holmes and Tom Cruise go mano- a-mano to see who rules the week's box office, it falls to "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" to make them both look like wimps.
Going to considerably darker places than the by-the-numbers action sequels, David Fincher's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's best-seller is difficult to watch at times, but impossible to take your eyes off, either.
This is the American adaptation of the original Swedish adaptation of Larsson's first blockbuster. Debate rages about which is the better film - in fact, they're awfully similar -but having seen the Swedish version makes it easier for us slow learners to connect the dots the second time around.
Having Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in the lead roles also adds star glitz amidst the bleak, sexually explicit and sadistically victimized requirements of their roles. Mara is especially fearless and convincing, kicking Milla Jovovich, Zoe Sandana and Angelina Jolie out of the ring when it comes to women avengers with attitude.
The publishing phenomenon that Stieg Larsson became is all the more macabre since he barely got to taste it before a fatal heart attack at age 50. Disturbing fiction and reality intertwine like gnarled tree roots in his brooding life and work.
The right-wing oligarchs he crusaded against as a political journalist resulted in death threats during his life. This tension provides the blueprints for Craig's embattled journalist hero and his adversaries, whose Nazi pasts mask even deeper depravity in their souls.
For all the politics, greed and corporate ruthlessness on the surface of the story, the real war is between the sexes. The perverse battles play out from sterile business offices to the barren, snow-covered landscapes of Larsson's Sweden. Fincher brings it all to the screen with his usual gritty intensity.
Hired to investigate a decades-old cold-case mystery by the aging patriarch (Christopher Plummer) of a once-mighty Swedish financial family, Craig's disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist hires Lisbeth Salander (Mara) as his assistant. She is a brilliant computer hacker, but a barely functional social being. Under her motorcycle helmet, her disturbing piercings and tattoos are emblems of the demons always fighting for control of her scarred psyche.
"Men Who Hate Women" was Larsson's original title for the book, with Lisbeth thrust into the role of avenging angel. As embarrassingly satisfying as it is to watch those moments when she is able to settle scores, dispensing vicious retribution against the piggish misogynists who have wronged her, they're little more than teardrops in the seas of oppression and victimization by men against women forever.
And the encounters still give you the creeps, no matter who wins.
In most cases, though, Lisbeth's weapon of choice is a laptop computer, providing access to both the psyches and the finances of foes and friends alike.
Much of the movie's "action" takes place on computer screens as the journalistic pair deconstruct aging photos to find buried clues.
Watching it, as I had with Fincher's Oscar-winning "The Social Network," I kept having the unsettling realization that evolution hasn't ended yet. It's still going on. We're well down some illustrated timeline in an anthropology text, showing human- kind's evolution from animals to machines.
A similar theme is there -it's just not so scary -in Tom Cruise's new "Mission Impossible -Ghost Protocol." Director Brad Bird shows the same talent for live action he displayed in computer-generated hits like "The Incredibles." Then again, considering all the co-starring he does with green screens, all the physics-defying action and all the scenes of him running races with vehicles in city streets, it might be argued that much of Cruise's performance is computer-generated as well.
Au contraire, he insists. He claims he did his own stunt work, which still has professional movie watchers wondering how they shot him climbing the exterior of the world's tallest building in Dubai.
The action sequences, packed with BMW product placement, are the real stars here, leaving it to his team's funny Simon Pigg, lovely Paula Patton and secretive Jeremy Renner to inject some semblance of human behavior under Cruise's Superman impersonation. All the while, the clock is ticking on their mission to save the world from a rogue nuclear attack to end life as we know it.
Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes finds himself on a similar mission in his movie, trying to stop evil Professor Moriarty from thrusting the world into chaos in the years before World War I did it for real.
What's with all this blowing up the world? Don't we have better things to think about in this hopefully hopeful new year?
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org