(4/5 prairie dogs)

After reading all three books by Stieg Larsson and watching the Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo twice, I had my doubts David Fincher had anything new to bring to the table with his own take on the best-seller. He has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt thanks to modern classics like The Social Network, Fight Club and Se7en, but the potential pitfalls were many and the margin for improvement was minimal.

I’m happy to report Fincher mostly succeeded. His approach to the thriller is cinematic, efficient and superbly acted.

In case you have been living under a rock for the last three years, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an engaging mystery that also serves as a feminist statement. The fact the story is rooted in a country as equalitarian as Sweden makes the acts of violence against women featured in the book (and later, the films) all the more poignant.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has two of the most compelling characters created in the last decade, principled journalist Mikael Blomkvist and disenfranchised hacker Lisbeth Salander. Blomkvist (Daniel Craig in the Fincher version) has fallen in disgrace after a tycoon exposé is revealed a sham. With time in his hands and a big hole in his bank account, Blomkvist agrees to work as an investigator for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), an industrialist with a broken heart.

Over thirty years ago, Vanger’s niece Harriet disappeared from a family reunion. Because the event took place in an island and he has been taunted since, Henrik suspects Harriet has been murdered and one of his relatives is responsible.

In his investigation, Blomqvist is assisted by the rarest of birds. Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is a skilled computer hacker, a Bobby Fisher level genius, victim of heinous crimes and vengeful angel. Salander lacks the most basic social skills, but her standoffishness comes handy when dealing with sadist criminals who hide behind good manners.

Because of its runaway success, many of the Dragon Tattoo twists and turns have been spilled. It’s unfortunate, considering Blomqvist’s inquiry is a joy to follow. Hardcore fans will notice screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Moneyball) eliminated some superfluous characters and blended others, two of them, pivotal. Surprisingly, they are not to be missed. Also gone is Blomkvist promiscuity (a running joke through all three books) and most of Salander back story, by far the weakest link of the first novel and the saga Achilles’ heel. Zaillian injects some really dark humor and one-liners to the story that keep the grim proceedings more palatable.

Despite being over two and a half hours long, the film progresses swiftly. The cinematography is not that much different from the Swedish version, but seems enhanced. DOP Jeff Cronenweth (The Social Network) makes you feel the cold. Not only it looks gorgeous, every frame has a second intention. “Show, don’t tell” has a champion in Cronenweth.

Another homerun for Fincher comes from the performers. While Daniel Craig doesn’t have to stretch too far (his Blomkvist is a clumsier, warmer Bond), the supporting cast gives the film additional weight. Stellan Skarsgaard as the duplicitous Martin Vanger is the Dragon Tattoo MVP, and Yorick van Wageningen (so brilliant in Winter in Wartime) is the perfect blend of pervert and bureaucrat.

Then there is the matter of Lisbeth Salander. Considering how iconic Noomi Rapace’s work was in the Swedish version, it was a tall order for Rooney Mara to fill. She tries extremely hard, but doesn’t make the role her own. While Rapace made Lisbeth vulnerability and vigilantism two sides of the same coin, Mara’s version lacks the same consistency. Her Salander is too withdrawn to jump into action at a moment notice.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a remarkable effort to cater to an adult audience with a quality product. Here is hoping we don’t have to wait for the sequel for another of the kind.