For starters, with the exception of a Nine Inch Nails-y music video credit sequence (set to that ultra-catchy cover of “Immigrant Song” from the teaser), this film is no different in tone or content than, nor does it improve on, the Swedish version that came out all of two years ago. (Ironically, that film’s two stars, Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist, are also on-screen this weekend in Sherlock and MI: Ghost Protocol respectively.) To be honest, I don’t even know why Fincher bothered to make this film, except for the paycheck: He already covered this sort of ground in Se7en, and went well beyond it with Zodiac. And even Matt Reeves’ Let Me In was further afield from Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In than this is to Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 film.
If anything, Oplev’s 2009 version was more elegant in many ways. You definitely don’t need to see them both. There, the clues snapped together better as the story progressed — Here, it’s occasionally unclear how our two intrepid investigators, Lizabeth Salander (Mara) and Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) have made the intuitive leaps they have. There, the post-case coda was briskly covered — Here, the extended ending approaches Return of the King-levels. And, perhaps most importantly, in the 2009 film, there was more than one bleedin’ suspect in the movie. Here, even without the obvious casting tell, the eventual murderer is pretty much the only person we meet over the course of the investigation. (Fincher should’ve paid Willem DaFoe and Christopher Walken just to show up and skulk around.)
Now, in my Let Me In review, I was rather tolerant of that film being a note-for-note remake of the Swedish version, while here, not so much. What’s the difference? Well, for me, it’s mainly because Let the Right One In was a novel take on the teenage vampire story, i.e. a story worth telling. But both versions of Dragon Tattoo are, in my humble opinion, puerile, sadistic trash. Honestly, what does it say about us that this brutal, rapey, not-particularly-interesting revenge-pr0n thriller was the #1 best-selling book in America for many moons? The only interesting subtext here is of buried secrets festering rot, which registers in both the national history of Sweden (who, as a neutral nation, had its share of Nazi sympathizers during the war) and the personal history of the author (who apparently wrote these books as penance for ignoring a horrible crime.) Otherwise, I find these films to be ultra-violent, serial-killer crapola.
And speaking of indications of how screwed up we are as a country, why was Steve McQueen’s Shame rated NC-17 if this movie got an R? Shame had a lot of consensual (if pained), not-very-appetizingly-filmed sex, and, ok, full-frontal nudity from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. (Yes, Virginia, adults have mommy and daddy parts). Meanwhile, this movie has beatings, murder, rapes, torture, eviscerations, disembowelments, Stellan Skarsgard…oh, heck, let’s just give it an R. Honestly, the MPAA’s priorities are nothing short of bizarre. (I’m not advocating censorship of this film — Bring the kids if you’re so inclined. It’s the ridiculously messed-up priorities that rankle.)
I’ll concede that, in general, I find serial-killer movies to be abominably stupid. (They’re not even frightening. In that regard, I much prefer supernatural horror. Other than Silence of the Lambs, American Psycho, Zodiac, the original Vanishing, and, if you want to count it, A Clockwork Orange, I can’t even think of any films in the serial killer genre I like.) So if the Dragon Tattoo books were your cup of tea, but not so much so that you didn’t bother to catch the Swedish movie, then perhaps you’ll find The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo worthwhile. The movie is definitely competently directed and made — Fincher isn’t going to put out bad product. But I found this an unnecessary remake of a grotesque and ludicrous story in the first place, and I’m kinda annoyed with myself for spending money on it.
Point being, I had a different reaction to this film than I’m guessing those unfamiliar with the world of Tintin will. Even notwithstanding the joy of seeing these beloved characters come to life, The Secret of the Unicorn is filled with easter eggs for Tintin-o-philes. Our hero (Jamie Bell) has nods to Cigars of the Pharaoah, The Black Island, and King Ottokar’s Sceptre on his wall. Later we encounter a crab with golden claws, a zero-G nod to Explorers on the Moon, and, as the villain’s “secret weapon,” a cameo by one of Captain Haddock’s (Andy Serkis) more amusing adversaries. And, in the background, Spielberg and Jackson are constantly recreating sight-gags from various Tintin adventures — say, Snowy digging up a ginormous bone in the desert –that continually conjured up ancient memories of childhood laughs within me. If you like Tintin, you’ll almost assuredly have a good time here.
And if you don’t know Belgium’s most famous boy journalist from a hole in the ground? Well, that’s a stickier wicket. The exquistely craftted chase scenes are reasonably engaging, if ever so slightly repetitive, on their own. (And a shout-out to John Williams’ score, which could be my favorite work of his in at least a decade.) But if you don’t know anything about these characters already, I’m not sure you’ll find much of a rooting interest here. For better or for worse, this is pretty clearly a film by Tintin fans for Tintin fans. (If anything, I sometimes wish they’d hewed even closer to the books. Some of the setpieces — say, Haddock and the bad guy (Daniel Craig) dueling with construction cranes — felt like generic action-spectacle filler. I’d rather have seen Tintin do more detective work.)
But, whether you’re new to Tintin or a veteran hand, I’m happy to report that the motion-capture animation here is the most impressive I’ve ever seen — no dead eyes to speak of here. I actually thought the animation Zemeckis’s Beowulf was reasonably well-done back in 2007, but this is better by an order of magnitude. (It helps that Spielberg and Jackson have forgone the uncanny valley by going for a Herge-plus look.) In fact, the two things I was most afraid of not working going in — the motion-capture animation and Snowy — are probably the two highlights of the film. (Tintin’s faithful companion is a scene-stealer through and through.) Conversely, the character who I thought would be an easy slam dunk, Captain Haddock, actually grows somewhat tiresome over the course of the movie. (The swearing plays, but all the alcoholic tendencies that are funny on paper begin to grate in three dimensions.)
Speaking of three dimensions, I caught this in 3D, but I’m not sure it really added much to the experience — especially when you factor in that a 3D movie ticket now costs all of $15.50(!) here in the District. I know I recently hated on the 3D push in my Hugo review, but, still, that price for one ticket to a 100 minute film is verging on the ridiculous. My advice: Take your kids to Tintin, but spend 2D money, and use the savings to buy them one of the books.
Unfortunately, there’s not a whit of Cronenberg’s usual weirdness to be found here, and the film, while harmless enough in its own right, suffers terribly from the missed opportunity. After all, this isn’t David Lynch making The Straight Story. Here we have the father of psychoanalysis, who became a world-historical figure mainly by reducing everyone to an unverifiable gaggle of repressed sexual impulses, going toe-to-toe with one of his proteges and the foremost advocate of dream analysis. Not to mention a colleague to them both who hates herself for loving spankings (hey, at least it’s not car crashes.) I mean, could the subject of this film be any more within Cronenberg’s normal wheelhouse? But, for whatever reason, he refuses to indulge his prior inclinations here, and the resulting film is well-mannered and arid. Even when Vincent Cassel shows up in the middle-going as an advocate for the virtues of the unrepressed id, the movie lacks any real charge.
That aside, there’s another major flaw with A Dangerous Method that seems churlish to dwell on, but which would be a problem regardless of the director. Fassbender (who’s been having a good deal of sex onscreen this week) and Mortenson are both very good here — the latter especially seems at ease as the cigar-chomping Freud, a supporting role outside his usual parameters. But, while she may be a wonderful person, Keira Knightley is just a terrible actress. I’ve tried to give her the benefit of the doubt through films like The Jacket. Atonement and Never Let Me Go, but her wayyy-over-the-top, herky-jerky performance here clinches it. (I’ll put it to you, good people: Has Knightley been impressive in anything since her supporting turn in Bend Like It Beckham?) Particularly in the first half-hour when she’s still playing “teh cRazeE,” I just felt embarrassed for her and for poor Fassbender.
“Never repress anything,” Vincent Cassel’s hedonist tells Jung at one point in this film, which may or may not be sound as a life philosophy. All I know is I wish Cronenberg had taken this advice, and that Knightley had thought better of it.
That being said, this movie is a hard nut to crack, and I’m not sure awards time is going to be very kind to this quality production. Not unlike Alfredson’s earlier adaptation of Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor seeks mainly to capture a mood — here, the daily anxieties, moral compromises, and ethical rot that come with too many years immersed in the spy game. That it succeeds in this endeavor while still telling a cloak-and-dagger tale of byzantine complexity is impressive. But, for all its strengths, Tinker Tailor is a somber and slow-moving piece, and, like the reticient spymaster at its center, it can feel remote at times. At least on a first viewing, I found Tinker more intellectually involving than emotionally engaging, if that makes any sense. (To be fair: As a newbie to the story, I spent much of the movie working hard just to keep up with the plot. Those already familiar with le Carre’s tale may be able to better soak in the picture the first time through.)
Given its languid opening, you wouldn’t think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had a exceedingly complex espionage tale to tell. It does. Like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (and here the similarities end), the film begins with a botched job in Budapest: Agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) has been sent by Control (John Hurt), the head of “the Circus” (a.k.a. MI6) to meet with a defecting Hungarian general in order to ascertain the identity of a mole deep within British Intelligence. But the mole gets word of this operation first: Prideux is shot in the back for his troubles, and Control — along with his #2 man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) — is ousted from the Circus, leaving Scotsman Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) at the head of the unit.
Cut to several months later, and Smiley is secretly brought out of retirement by a political operative (Simon McBurney) to investigate further into the mole. Picking up where the now-deceased Control left off, and with the aid of two junior agents — one from the Circus (Benedict Cumberbatch), one from the field (Tom Hardy) — Smiley must figure out which of MI6’s ringmasters is spilling secrets to the Russians. Is it Alleline, who has an unknown source he wants to peddle to the Americans? The debonair Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), who’s perhaps just a little too hail-fellow-well-met? As a Hungarian emigre, Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) could well know top Soviet officials, and Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) keeps his cards close to his vest. Or is it, as Control feared most of all, Smiley himself, and the fox has been put in charge of the henhouse?
So, there are a lot of balls in play, and, even though the movie retains its unforced air, it has to keep the revelations moving at a brisk clip to get through the dense thicket of a plot — which is one of my quibbles with the picture. Why not let the story breathe? According to Colin Firth, the original cut of the film was 3.5 hours (it’s now 127 minutes long) and, while that may be a touch long, it would have been nice to spend a little more time with some of these characters. (Hind’s Roy Bland, for example, basically lives up to his name here — He’s too good an actor to be given this little to do. And as one of Smiley’s lieutenants, Roger Lloyd-Pack, a.k.a. Barty Crouch in Goblet of Fire, seems like he should have more backstory also.)
Surprisingly (to me, at least), it’s the rising generation of thespians that is given more to do here. Tom Hardy’s agent, Ricky Tarr, relives the story of a doomed affair with a beautiful potential defector (Svetlana Khodchenkova), Mark Strong’s Prideaux hides out as a schoolteacher, and Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam goes deep undercover in the Circus to procure data for the investigation. They are the doers. The older, more dissolute and jaded generation are the watchers, and none more so than the implacable, owl-eyed Smiley himself. As David Edelstein noted and Jim Gordon notwithstanding, Gary Oldman is an actor that usually goes to eleven, so Smiley’s restraint is a bit of an About Schmidt turn for him. But, he’s very good here, especially when he has an interviewee in his grip and begins slowly, inexorably tightening the vise.
Also, if you hunt and peck online, you can occasionally find a bad dub of the six-minute prologue on line as well. (This wasn’t it.) I caught it at the Smithsonian last week and my thoughts were basically: 1) Ooh, Carcetti! 2) Wait, what did Bane just say? (You get used to it) and 3) Hmm, this is more Bond than Batman…but let’s see where Nolan goes with it.
Surprisingly — or perhaps unsurprisingly if you consider that Bird is the brains behind The Iron Giant and The Incredibles — Ghost Protocol is a pretty great action movie. It’s sleek, fluid, involving, and it’s almost unbelievable that this is Bird’s first live-action film. From its opening moments — as two IMF agents (Simon Pegg and Paula Patton) break Ethan Hunt (Cruise) out of a Russian prison — Ghost Protocol moves with a brisk confidence to (almost) the finish. And you’d have to go back fifteen years, to Brian DePalma’s original film, to find an M:I as entertaining. (Quite frankly, this one might even be better. I haven’t seen the first one in awhile.) In short, I can’t speak for Tintin yet, but if you’re an action aficionado at all, this film should get your money this Christmas — especially over Sherlock.
The plot doesn’t really need going over here. As you might expect, there’s an impossible mission, if Ethan Hunt and his team (Pegg, Patton, and eventually presumed future-Cruise replacement Jeremy Renner) choose to accept it — in this case, retrieving Russian launch codes from a deranged bureaucrat (Michael Nyqvist of the Swedish Dragon Tattoo films) hell-bent on global thermonuclear war. To even have a chance of accomplishing it and saving the world, this last remaining IMF team will have to travel to exotic locales, engage in espionage and misdirection, and utilize all the 21st-century tech and derring-do at their disposal. But wiil that be enough? Well, probably, but you never know…
In the end, I have three basic, and minor, nitpicks with Ghost Protocol. First, the third and final act (in India) is just a bit of a letdown after the dizzying heights (literally) of the first two, in Moscow and Dubai — but that speaks to the strength of the first 80 minutes more than anything. Second, Bird & co. occasionally forget to restrain their impulse to turn Simon Pegg’s character into Threepio — all comic relief, all the time. (An understandable inclination, but the humor can still be a bit broad at times.) And, third, the coda of the film — you’ll know it with the inevitable cameo by you-know-who — is just terrible in every way. It feels like it came from the bad Tom Cruise movie everyone feared Ghost Protocol would be. (Fortunately, it’s only five minutes of screen time.)
But other than those minor caveats, this is quite a good film. I would say 2011 has been a mostly disappointing year in movies, except for the fact that several potential schlockfests — Thor, Captain America, Rise of the Planet of the Apes — all happened to come out on the entertaining end. Ghost Protocol continues, and caps, that welcome trend, and goes down as one of the best action movies of the year. Now that he’s finished rehabilitating this once lamentable franchise, let’s hope Brad Bird chooses to accept more impossible missions in the years to come.