There's no arguing that Lisbeth Salander — the central figure in the Millennium book series created by Stieg Larsson — is one of the most intriguing and complicated characters to grace the big screen. She's driven to avenge wrongdoings with the kind of passion traditionally reserved for men and accomplishes her missions with a brutal and unrelenting honesty that would never be shown by any male character.
Some of the qualities that have made Lisbeth so fascinating and compelling in books and the 2011 feature film release, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," have been slightly watered down for "The Girl in the Spider's Web" because the film's based on the writings of David Lagercrantz, who took over the series after Larsson's death. As so often happens when a new writer takes over a book series, the tendency to put an original spin on the work often ends up shifting tone and texture.
Even a slightly lighter version of the character is compelling to watch, particularly because of the standout performance by Claire Foy in the title role (played in "Dragon Tattoo" by Rooney Mara). Director Fede Alvarez ("Don't Breathe") amplifies Foy's performance with a beautifully stylized look to the production that embraces the dark and gloomy with great ferocity.
"The Girl in the Spider's Web" starts with a reminder of what has been the dark heart of the series. Lisbeth has again used her impressive skills as a hacker to help a brutalized woman escape from the man who has caused her so much pain and agony. Fans of the book will understand the vigilante work is fed by Lisbeth's own brutal past, an element that has been toned down for this tale.
The storyline is still very personal. Lisbeth finds herself in a showdown with her sister, Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), who has taken over the family's crime lord business. What now serves as Lisbeth's backstory is one where both sisters are being pulled into the dark sexual world of their father where Lisbeth escapes and never looks back. The difference from previous information is unsettling but not enough to hurt the entire movie.
There's not much time for reflection, as Lisbeth is hired by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), an American programmer who fears for his life because of the software he created that can hack any nuclear arsenal on the planet. The job becomes personally vital as the programmer's son (Christopher Convery) becomes an important part of the efforts to keep the software out of the wrong hands.
The addition of Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), a hacker who has become an NSA security techie, brings the Americans into the story. That element isn't necessary because Foy's performance is enough to make this story compute.
Part of Foy's ability to dominate the movie comes from the new job skills Lisbeth brings to the table. She now seems to have an almost omnipotent ability to hack the world while also gaining the kind of fighting and driving skills of a 007 agent. A scene where she escapes from near death by driving a motorcycle across a frozen watery expanse makes for beautiful cinema but chips away from the dark credibility established in previous works.
What keeps the changes from short-circuiting the production is Foy. She shows remarkable range, going from her recent work as the grounded Janet Armstrong in "First Man" to the nearly mythological Lisbeth. Coy goes so deeply into the dark and emotional tangled world you can almost feel her sweating out pain through every pore in her body. This is a great example of an actor not just playing a role, but going so far into the performance that there is a transformation.
Overall, "The Girl in the Spider's Web" loses a few beats because of the different approach Lagercrantz uses from when Larsson was writing the character. The changes aren't bad but will feel disconcerting when compared to the original books and the previous film adaptations. The counterbalance is Foy, whose command of the screen deflects a lot of the problems. Her performance works because she comes across as if she were the dark and twisted sister of James Bond no one talks about.