Stiegg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy continues to dominate the New York Times bestsellers lists just as it did across Europe, and the film adaptations are doing brisk business as well. The first film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (review here), didn’t top the US box-office (it is subtitled after all), but it did very well in limited release. It appeared on DVD and Blu-ray this week and both formats currently sit near the top of the sales charts. The inevitable US remake is still in pre-production and cast speculations run rampant, but for those of us who don’t mind reading while we watch the second film in the Swedish trilogy is about to reach our screens.
The Girl Who Played With Fire picks up roughly a year after the conclusion of Dragon Tattoo, and our two leads have gone their separate ways. Once-disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is back in the saddle both as co-publisher of Millennium Magazine and as occasional sex buddy with his long time magazine partner, Erika Berger. He hasn’t seen the odd and fiercely intelligent Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) for quite some time and is unsure why she left and where she’s gone. For those of you with short-term memory loss, Dragon Tattoo saw Blomkvist convicted of libel and decide to take on a forty year-old missing person case while he awaits sentencing. His investigation crosses paths with Salander and the two join forces and genitals to solve the case and stop a present-day killer.
The new film starts with Millennium hiring a young writer who’s preparing to publish an exposé on Sweden’s sex-trafficking industry including the names of some well known customers in government and on the police force. The writer and his girlfriend are killed, the murder weapon is found with Salander’s fingerprints, and a third murder with ties to the troubled bisexual convinces the police that she’s a dangerous fugitive. They begin a manhunt on the streets and in the press, and only Blomkvist maintains a belief in her innocence. He sets out to find the real culprits, and as Salander’s own investigation runs parallel to his own they discover secrets from her childhood that go a long way toward explaining the person she’s become.
Aside from a brief opening flashback this second film of the trilogy thankfully avoids the brutal and at times overwhelming scenes of rape and other violence aimed towards women… which is odd seeing as the plot here involves the seedy world of white slavery and forced prostitution. But that’s a good thing as instead the movie is able to focus on the murders, lies, and buried truths that tie Salander and the victims together. The main conflict here is a present day threat which allows for more danger and suspense than was found in Dragon Tattoo‘s decades-old mystery. Scenes of computer hacking and library research are replaced with surveillance, exploration, a car chase, and more. It’s a stronger atmosphere for a thriller, and it works to the benefit of the movie’s pacing and overall enjoyment. It’s still a smart and twisted tale, but it also gives the audience better and more suspenseful adrenaline beats.
The singular problem weaving its way throughout the film is in the dueling investigation structure. Blomkvist and Salander are both looking for answers to the same questions, but they never cross each others path except through email. And emails are not engaging or exciting. Not even Swedish ones. The odd and fragile chemistry the two managed to form in the first film is missing by default of the two never coming together here. That missing dynamic forces the weight of the narrative onto Salander’s (and by extension, Rapace’s) slender shoulders. She does a fine job, but that emotional gap leaves the audience watching a mystery unfold with a singular dramatic lead while Blomkvist runs around doing little more than playing catch-up.
As it is with the books and the first film, the character of Lisbeth Salander is the true draw here. She’s an original creation on Larsson’s part, and Rapace has staked a firm and fierce claim to the role. Whereas Dragon Tattoo had her almost exclusively scowling, frowning, or gritting her teeth, this time she’s allowed to relax occasionally into a state of happiness and relief whether it be on a Caribbean vacation or in the naked and sweaty embrace of a girlfriend. Rapace shows that hidden calm beautifully through glimpses of peace, kindness, and release, but she just as easily shifts into fighting mode when necessary. The film shines in these moments as the spunky and persistent Salander kicks some major ass.
The Girl Who Played With Fire is a pretty solid stand-alone thriller that succeeds at making multiple improvements over the previous film while taking only one real step backwards. At two hours the film could probably stand to shave ten minutes or so, but it still manages to maintain some fairly consistent suspense and a legitimate feeling of danger for its lead character. The dynamic between Salander and Blomkvist that was developed in Dragon Tattoo is sadly absent here, but the increased action and tension make the film more enjoyable than its predecessor.
The Upside: Salander is the focus here, both her past and her present; more action and suspense than the first film
The Downside: Occasional pacing issue; Blomkvist has little to do aside from follow Salander’s trail