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Swedish writer and activist Stieg Larsson was a passionate leftist who wrote about what he saw as the flaws in Swedish society. When he died in 2004, he left behind three unpublished novels about a crime-solving journalist who teams up with a punk computer hacker.

The novels, published posthumously as the "Millennium Trilogy," have sold more than 21 million copies worldwide. They've also been made into Swedish movies, all hugely popular in Europe. The first of those movies opens today in the U.S.

Bob Mondello reviews "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

BOB MONDELLO: Walking through a Stockholm square, recently disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist can't escape his own image. His face, accompanied by the headline "Guilty," stares back from newsstands, from billboard-sized video screens, and - though Blomkvist doesn't realize it - from the viewfinder of a camera held by a fierce-looking, leather-clad punkette named Lisbeth.

Blomkvist's crime was investigating a powerful industrialist who sued him for libel. Lisbeth, who has been brutalized enough to instinctively side with the powerless, has taken an interest. Hacking into the journalist's computer, she discovers he's now investigating what even Swedes would consider a cold case: the disappearance four decades earlier of another industrialist's niece.

Soon they're working in tandem - Blomkvist's taking an old-school, shoe-leather approach to crime solving, while Lisbeth mines the Internet for clues.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man: (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: Stieg Larsson's novels are rife with sexual violence and violent sex, but they're also mystery thrillers in the Agatha Christie sense. In this case, with an isolated estate, skulking suspect, hidden motives and alibis.

But the author is also a sharp social critic. So what his characters uncover isn't just crime, but a whole dark side to Swedish society: decades of hidden fascism, corporate corruption, religious atrocities and, most of all, a terrible, sadistic misogyny.

The film's title in Swedish means "Men Who Hate Women," and it's entirely apt. Lisbeth, pierced, tattooed and played with a sometimes uncontrolled ferocity by Noomi Rapace...

(Soundbite of screaming)

MONDELLO: ...qualifies as both a victim of male violence and a violent avenger of it. This makes her a lot more compelling than her comparatively passive partner, something that Hollywood will doubtless find it necessary to remedy when "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" gets remade in English. With George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp reportedly interested in playing Blomkvist, you can pretty much count on a more active male lead, along with Tinseltown's customary approach to moral questions and a decrease in cultural authenticity.

A cold case in a frigid landscape, in other words, will likely get hotted up. And unless you have moral objections to subtitles, that's an argument for catching the Scandinavian original. I'm Bob Mondello.

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