‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ Film Review: Claire Foy’s Lisbeth Salander Adventure Trades Angst for Espionage

Based on a novel that’s not in the original trilogy, this crackerjack adventure values spy-stuff over character

The Girl in the Spider's Web
Reiner Bajo/Sony

The world-famous Swedish vigilante hacker Lisbeth Salander is back, and this time she’s saving the world from nuclear annihilation. It’s a bit of a shift for Salander; when last we saw her in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” she was solving serial murders and exacting painful revenge on abusive male accountants.

In Fede Alvarez’s “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” she’s stealing from the NSA, surviving explosions in bathtubs and getting in a whole bunch of car chases. It’s like if “Goldfinger” was the sequel to “Psycho.” It may be undeniably cool to watch, but it’s hard to deny that it’s a tonal Crazy Ivan.

It’s been three years since Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy, taking over from Oscar nominee Rooney Mara) last worked with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason, formerly Daniel Craig). She’s been using her mad hacking skills to punish abusive husbands, but she’s still got a day job, and when she’s asked to perform “the impossible,” she can’t resist the challenge.

Ex-NSA employee Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) created a computer program which could hack any nuclear weapon on the planet, but he didn’t realize until it was too late that that was an insanely stupid thing to do. So he hires Salander to get it back, and as soon as she does, her apartment is firebombed, and she’s the new Public Enemy #1.

Salander has to retrieve the MacGuffin — sorry, the “Firefall” — and save Balder from a sinister organization called The Spiders, who have been hired by an even more sinister villain whose identity is unknown. Somehow, the scheme also ties into Salander’s past, because the film begins with an elaborate prologue and title sequence about her abusive father and long-lost sister, and that’s hardly a coincidence.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” isn’t based on one of the novels in the “Millennium” series written by Stieg Larsson — it’s an adaptation of a later Salander adventure written by David Lagercrantz — but it’s still a pulpy adventure spawned by realistic pain and suffering. Unlike the US “Dragon Tattoo” and the three Scandinavian adaptations of Larsson’s books, Alvarez’s film isn’t a harsh character study or a brutal indictment of a misogynistic society: It’s a fast-moving thriller about nuclear launch codes, and there’s hardly any time for little luxuries like character development and themes.

That being said, it’s a crackerjack thriller. Alvarez cut his teeth on suspenseful horror thrillers like “Don’t Breathe” and the “Evil Dead” remake, and he seems eager to use those skills to please crowds instead of to terrify them. Salander gets in two inventive car chases — one of them on drugs with a corpse riding shotgun — and fights off bad guys in glowing gas masks with a cattle prod. It’s not potent, it’s not insightful, it’s just really, really cool.

Lisbeth Salander hasn’t completely lost her edge. She’s probably the only action-movie hero around whose plans involve suitcases full of dildos. But she’s clearly moved on, no doubt thanks to the two installments in her saga that “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” skips. “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” have already taken place in this continuity — the characters talk about those events in the past tense — and so we’ve skipped quite a bit of her character development. Claire Foy gives Salander all the tortured drive she can muster, but she’s quite busy scamming the government and stealing Lamborghinis. The fury is gone from the character, but the kick-butt heroism remains.

We’ve also skipped over any need to have her sidekick, Mikael Blomkvist, in the movie anymore. The plot of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” had the two characters on a collision course, two protagonists destined to meet and join forces. “Spider’s Web” is clearly Salander’s story, with Blomkvist contributing almost nothing to the story that she couldn’t figure out on her own. He’s in the movie for the same reason Leo Getz was in “Lethal Weapon 3”; because it’s obligatory now. Never mind giving him something to do.

Still, “Spider’s Web” spins along at such a fast clip that none of the details matter. When did NSA computer specialist Edwin Neeham (Lakeith Stanfield) also become a sniper? Who cares! How did Salander’s father develop a fetish for vacuum-sealing people into vinyl bags? It doesn’t matter! Why does so much of this story seem like it was lifted from the movie “Sneakers”? Because “Sneakers” is awesome, that’s why!

This franchise seemed so punk rock when David Fincher and Niels Arden Oplev were directing it. Now, it’s a clean and efficient espionage thriller with the whole world at stake and no subtext to speak of. And it’s an extremely entertaining one. “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is such an absorbing airplane novel of a movie that you half expect to walk out of the theater and into O’Hare International. Your flight was on time, and the turbulence was totally badass.