Claire Foy Goes Full Action Mode for ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’

The times would seem ripe for the character of Lisbeth Salander. A bisexual rebel who uses technology to defy the system and bring down fascists and misogynists, she is one of the most original thriller personas of the last decade. “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” keeps the rebel look intact, but turns Salander into a total action movie tool. The Punk haircut, piercings and leather jacket are now donned by Claire Foy, who again proves she’s the real deal. In Netflix’s “The Crown” she played Queen Elizabeth II for two seasons with subdued refinement. Recently she played Neil Armstrong’s wife in “First Man,” turning into the voice of Armstrong’s conscience. In “Girl in the Spider’s Web” she’s an anarchic agent of vengeance, capable of dodging explosions and hijacking cool cars.

We’re back in snow-covered Swedish landscapes as Salander (Foy) is contacted by a computer genius named Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant). Balder designed a special program that allows one to access all of the world’s nuclear missiles. The distant NSA in the United States took his design and is using it not to fight nuclear proliferation, but to keep it is a ready trigger for war. Balder wants Salander to hack into the NSA, take the program and return it to him in order to wipe it out. Salander succeeds but is soon attacked by unknown thugs who torch her place. She seeks help from old investigative partner and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason). Blomkvist is frustrated over the magazine he used to run, Millennium, now going to some corporate suit. Those concerns must be put aside when Salander discovers who is trying to get the program, her sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), who long ago became the head of a crime syndicate known as Spiders. An NSA agent, Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) has also arrived in Sweden to track down the program and get it back into American hands.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” has the subhead of “A New Dragon Tattoo Story.” This is meant to link it in the minds of viewers to the original films based on the late Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of novels. For those catching up, the trilogy was first turned into a series of highly acclaimed Swedish films first released in 2009. These were also the films that introduced Noomi Rapace in the lead role. In 2011 David Fincher adapted the first book into a rather strong, atmospheric version starring Rooney Mara as Salander. “Girl in the Spider’s Web” skips over the trilogy and is based on a commissioned, continuation novel by David Lagercrantz. Directing this time is Fede Alvarez, who made 2016’s “Don’t Breathe.” Alvarez is above all a visual stylist and this is a great-looking movie. His cinematographer, Pedro Luque, keeps some of the visual palette of the Fincher film, lighting everything in drained colors and wet surfaces. The Swedish environment becomes menacing, almost gothic.

But fans of the original books and films might find a mixed bag here. As a franchise reboot the goal seems to be to turn Salander into a female James Bond with a more progressive bent. The opening scene finds her appearing Batman-style in the home of an abusive, rich husband beating up his wife. Salander strings him up, lights a cigarette and announces she’s transferring his money to the wife’s account and will keep an eye on him. The previous novels and films were indeed a thriller commentary on the culture of misogyny and proto-fascist politics hiding beneath the surface of Swedish society. But the punk intellectualism is quickly dropped in “Girl in the Spider’s Web” for a more standard chase story. Once Balder contacts Salander it’s all about finding the computer program and keeping it away from roving bands of assassins. Those new to the series might get confused with the whole plotline about Camilla and Salander’s broken relationship dating back to their abusive father. Flashbacks fill in the gaps, giving us a visual recap of how Salander left on her own to escape from a toxic family. But Camilla is turned into every disgruntled villain from a million spy films, wishing to burn the whole world because her home was bad and her sister left. The character of Blomkvist is woefully underused. Played in the Fincher film by Daniel Craig, here Sverrir Gudnason’s version of the investigative journalist almost literally does nothing. He talks to Salander over the phone, promises to help, shows up when convenient, such as to staple shut a deep gash across her dragon tattoo, and survives the inevitable action climax. Even if the series now wants to focus exclusively on Salander, it shouldn’t just toss away a character who actually helps strengthen the switch in gender roles.

For Claire Foy this is still a strong introduction for her into genre cinema. She makes the character her own, transforming into an introverted, haunted personality. The comfortable refinement of “The Crown” is gone, replaced by a steeled survivalist. She seems at home in action sequences involving car chases, shoot outs on bridges, running through houses as sniper fire bursts all around. We even get a classic touch when assassins blow up her apartment but Salander manages to dive into a bathtub and stay underwater as flames rage over the surface. Credit should be given to writers Jay Basu, Steven Knight and Alvarez for still finding space to explore a little of Salander’s sexual identity in the story before all of the fireworks begin.

Those who like slick exercises in action filmmaking might enjoy “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” as just that. The twists are right out of the spy handbook, with more than one double cross being inevitable. Admirers of Stieg Larsson’s creation will miss the richer layers and subtext of the past films. We should be glad that the studios still see Lisbeth Salander as a worthy character to put on screen, let’s hope next time around they also put her in a worthier movie.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web” opens Nov. 9 in theaters nationwide.