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'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' & 'Kick-ass'

Millions of readers in Europe and the United States have bought and (presumably) read Stieg Larsson’s Swedish mystery The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels. How patient those millions must be. Digging through the 644 pages of the first book, with its inept backstory, banal characterizations, flavorless prose, surfeit of themes (Swedish Nazism, uncaring bureaucracy, corporate malfeasance, abuse of women, etc.), and—worst of all—author Larsson’s penchant for always telling us exactly what we should be feeling, I kept wondering if the story buried under all the information was worth the trouble.

To my surprise, the film’s answer turns out to be yes. Director Niels Arden Oplev and his scriptwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel have gotten rid of what is not essential in Larsson’s story and zeroed in on its one indispensable theme: how the sins of one generation—mainly the murderous abuse of women and children—are visited on the next. On-screen, the plot seems as efficient as it was diffuse in print.

The patriarch of an industrial dynasty hires a recently (and unfairly) disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, to investigate the disappearance, forty years ago, of a favorite niece. Blomkvist teams up with a young computer genius, Lisbeth Salander, whose punkish appearance and crypto-autistic behavior are intimidating, and the two amateur detectives uncover—surprise, surprise—all sorts of family skeletons and hideous evil.

In the book, the emotionally damaged Lisbeth arouses the reader’s interest through her sheer freakishness and her ingenuity in protecting herself from various predators, while the more conventional journalist comes across as terminally dull. (Larsson was reputedly a dynamic journalist, but a mark of his ineptitude as a novelist is his inability to make his conventional characters as interesting as his eccentric ones.) On-screen, though, the two characters appear equally compelling. Noomi Rapace invests Lisbeth with the right blend of pathos and dangerousness and Michael Nyqvist plays Blomkvist with a craggy gentleness that may remind you of Liam Neeson. Between them, the two sum up all the reasons fictional detectives need for embarking on a quest: money, personal involvement in a case, conceit (a.k.a. professional pride), and thirst for justice (or revenge).

Blomkvist, having lost a costly libel suit, at first works strictly for the monetary reward that his industrialist employer offers, but then he discovers that the missing heiress was the teenage babysitter he worshiped as a child. As he delves into the mystery, her face, an image of virginal beauty and innocence, is always with him. Since he had a happy childhood and the vanished girl was part of it, Mikael’s quest to either find her alive or avenge her murder resembles an attempt to restore Eden.

But Lisbeth, who had a horrific childhood, soon finds out that the abuse she suffered is reflected in the circumstances of the heiress’s disappearance. Though initially drawn into the mystery by her skepticism about Blomkvist’s disgrace and her pride in her computer skills, the punk hacker eventually realizes that the victim’s tormentors resemble her own. For Lisbeth, cracking this case is the best revenge. Blomkvist is the detective as sentimental knight-errant; Lisbeth, the detective as avenging fury. They make a good team.

Oplev turns Larsson’s verbal plodding into visual dynamism. For instance, when the industrialist lays out the circumstances of his niece’s disappearance, Oplev dispenses with the book’s long monologue and has the patriarch produce television news footage of the locale and circumstances of the mystery. Later, the journalist finds photographs that provide more clues. The blown-up stills from film and photographs are neatly employed by Oplev (in the manner of Antonioni’s Blow-Up) to make us co-detectives; we share in the excitement as the heroes bear down on the solution. The directorial skill is such that the interviews Blomkvist conducts are as thrilling as the various car chases and last-minute rescues. Eric Kress’s cinematography, which makes downtown Stockholm, country roads, and a sparsely inhabited island all seem frostily mysterious, keeps reminding us why this subgenre of detective fiction has come to be labeled Nordic Noir.

Kick-Ass is a foul-mouthed, ultra-violent, teen-pandering, artistically schizoid, sniggeringly sexual, blatantly insensitive, culture-ravaging piece of nastiness, and I loved nearly every minute of it. An adaptation of a graphic novel (a.k.a. comic book), this movie is a genre mash-up. It begins with the milieu of Superbad and Juno: the world of middle-class, basically innocent but sexually questing kids stuck in high schools where they’re shunned by cliques and bullied by oafs. The sixteen-year-old hero, Dave Lizewski (perfectly embodied by Aaron Johnson), puts it succinctly: “Like most people my age, I just existed.” He and his two pals aren’t even nerdy enough to join the debate team or the science club, but they dote on superhero comic books.

Determined to make some mark on life, Dave dons generic superhero garb and ventures into the streets as “Kick-Ass,” a champion crime fighter, even though he has absolutely no fighting skills or special weapons. Though Dave’s high school and home life are realistically presented, the city awaiting him is right out of an early Batman or Superman comic book: one big stronghold of grunge run by the Mafia and abandoned to vice by the corrupt police. Certainly a place that needs a superhero, though Kick-Ass is a puny excuse for one.

Especially because two real superheroes are about to appear. An ex-cop on a mission of vengeance (Nicolas Cage) has trained himself and his eleven-year-old daughter in kung fu, and both are equipped with gadgetry that would aston-ish James Bond. “Big Daddy” and “Hit-Girl” are lethal versions of Batman and Robin, slicing and dicing mobsters with abandon and taking no prisoners. Since they also leave no trace of their identities, while Kick-Ass has his feeble exploits disseminated on the Web, the gangsters mistakenly go after the boy. Having met the real crimefighters, Kick-Ass realizes he will have to turn to them for help.

Matthew Vaughn, the talented British director of Layer Cake, a fairly realistic gangster movie, and Stardust, a total fantasy, was the ideal writer-director for this project. He renders the teen angst with down-to-earth humor and explodes the superhero stuff across the screen with digital frenzy. The two genres don’t really blend; they ram against each other, and the sound of their collision shouldn’t be pleasant. Yet it is. Why? Perhaps because we have been initially drawn so amiably into the mentalities of young Dave and his fellow nerds that, by the time the action-hero plot emerges, it registers as a projection of their imaginations, as if the contents of their beloved comic books spilled over into the outside world. Vaughn nudges us toward this perception with little touches, such as the way the time transition titles—“six months earlier” or “one week later”—are printed in the same sort of little boxes that caption comic-strip panels.

The film has drawn fire for the violence perpetrated by Hit-Girl (actress Chloë Grace Moretz smiles sweetly as she hacks away), and for the blue language that comes out of her mouth. For me, the violence was so over the top, so cartoonish and digitally enhanced, that the effect was comic rather than sadistic. But the verbal foulness was a mistake, since Nicolas Cage portrays Big Daddy as such an upstanding square that we wonder why he permits his daughter to talk this way. Another misstep: near the end, Hit-Girl is punched out by the head Mafioso and we see her bloodied face in close-up. This tips us right out of the comic-book universe and into the reality of child abuse. The socially concerned melodrama of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can absorb such pain; Kick-Ass cannot.

The actors are terrific, especially Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who makes the Mafioso’s son both a believably mixed-up kid and a supervillain-in-the-making. The soundtrack, a musical gallimaufry featuring Mozart, Ennio Morricone, Joan Jett, and Julia Ward Howe, is like the entire movie: a schizoid, screwy exhilaration.

Published in the 2010-05-07 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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