Expectations overturned by holiday turnout

Expectations overturned by holiday turnout

Racing to the finish line this holiday season, “War Horse” was predicted as the winner. The family-oriented film with a heartwarming story was indeed a sentimental winner with Steven Speilberg at the helm, but not the true winner among the three biggest, mass audience releases in the past two weeks.

That honor goes to “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” and coming in at third place was “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” In its fourth outing and the first since 1996, the “Mission” franchise turned in an energized performance that audiences seemed to gravitate to over the darker themes in “Tattoo.” Tom Cruise, older but incredibly fit, stars again as Ethan Hunt, the MI team leader who is biding his time in a Moscow prison as the film opens. His crackerjack team, Benji the tech guy (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton), break him out and soon they are embroiled in another impossible mission to save the world from nuclear war at the hands of a Swedish baddy Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), with another agent, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), joining them.

This is animator Brad Bird’s first live action picture to direct, and he should be largely credited with staging some breathtaking stunts — as well as not staging too many of them. There is balance at work here with only one large explosion, a wild car chase, a skyscraper climb and a globe trotting adventure that takes us from Dubai to Mumbai. Not that there is a formula for action films, but I come to see the “Mission” films for the same reason I tuned in each week to watch Bruce Geller’s television version — the cool gadgets. This one has plenty of them with everything from gravity-defying magnet suits to a massive cloaking device that masks an entire corridor in the Kremlin.

It’s a good thing we’re distracted by all the high tech toys because, as usual, the plot is a bit of a muddle, although more coherent than the last “Mission” which was somewhat of a box office disappointment. The franchise rebounds here as the top film of the holiday season and sets up Renner as a possible replacement for Cruise.In nearby theaters, “Tattoo” took aim at the top slot and came up short. Perhaps the most highly anticipated movie of the season since it was announced David Fincher would direct, it certainly delivers, but it stops there. A page-by-page adaptation of the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s “Millenium” trilogy, audiences have already had a chance to see the 2009 Swedish film starring Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander and Michael Nyqkvist – both of whom have made the jump to American films this winter with Nyqkvist in “Mission: Impossible” and Rapace in “Sherlock Holmes.” An odd juxtaposition on a trivial note. This new American version features Rooney Mara as the tattooed loner and tech wiz who helps journalist Mikael Blomkvist solve an age old mystery of a young girl’s disappearance, which eventually leads them to a serial killer.Fincher certainly captures the look and feel of Larsson’s book set in Sweden, but in a sterile detached way that does service to the story but fails to give us that extra oomph. Technically, the film is perfect, with some unusual opening credits that set up what is to come and the Trent Reznor score strikes the right chords — eerie and strident. But with one film to compare it to, I have to say I was expecting more from Fincher, one of the best directors working today.

What’s there is as cold and icy as the Swedish winter the characters shiver their way through. Only in the last few minutes does Fincher throw in an interesting twist departing from the book that I’m sure Larsson would have appreciated.

The excellent cast includes Daniel Craig as Blomkvist, Christopher Plummer as octogenarian magnate Henrik Vanger, and Stellan Skarsgard as his nephew, Martin. Rounding out the proceedings is Robin Wright as Erika, Mikael’s married co-worker and lover.

The second of the trilogy, “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” has been greenlighted with Craig and Mara already aboard, in case you were wondering. Fincher has not been slated to direct.