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Dragon Tattoo: You go, Girl 

***1/2

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

***1/2

DIRECTED BY David Fincher

STARS Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara

Think of it as the "close but no cigar" brand of cinema, where American adaptations of foreign hits prove to be better than expected yet don't quite trump their highly regarded predecessors. Let Me In, Matt Reeves' take on the Swedish vampire yarn Let the Right One In, is one example; The Departed, Martin Scorsese's version of the Hong Kong import Infernal Affairs, is another (Oscar wins notwithstanding). But now there's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which manages the impressive feat of emerging as superior to the internationally admired Swedish version from 2009.

In many ways, this adheres closely to what audiences witnessed in the first version (both films were based on the book by the late Stieg Larsson, the first installment in his Millennium trilogy). As before, two characters leading separate lives find their destinies intertwined: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a punkish, bisexual computer expert who's suspicious of everyone around her, particularly men; and Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a wrongly ostracized journalist who accepts a personal assignment from wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the decades-removed disappearance of his niece. Mikael searches for clues on the sizable Vanger estate out in the Swedish hinterlands, while Lisbeth, still in Stockholm, deals with a series of unfortunate developments, including an ailing friend, a broken laptop, and, most shockingly, a sleazy parole officer (Yorick van Wageningen) who binds and rapes her (her sweet revenge is brutal and brilliant). Only when Mikael realizes he needs an assistant does Lisbeth enter his life, becoming unlikely allies as they solve the mystery together.

The 2009 Swedish version is a fine film, but this one is nevertheless an improvement, right from the dazzling opening credits (perhaps the best I've seen this year) to an epilogue that's unexpectedly poignant. Director David Fincher works in a crisp, efficient manner, and while the original's Noomi Rapace made for a memorable heroine, Mara is even better, retaining this great character's steely resolve and unfiltered intelligence but confident enough to allow us to see the hurt child residing within.

After helming the zeitgeist hit The Social Network, Fincher has been accused by some critics of slumming with this pulpy material, but I beg to differ. Just check out the climactic scene that's set to Enya's "Orinoco Flow" — perhaps not since Michael Mann employed Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" at the end of Manhunter has a filmmaker so imaginatively, and perversely, merged music with moving imagery.

Go here for a look at the 10 Best & 10 Worst Movies of 2011.

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