DVD Review: The Swedish adaptation of The Girl Who Played with Fire (book two in Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy) gives us more of what we want—namely Noomi Rapace’s electrifying Lisbeth Salander. On the other hand, it can’t help but feel like a sequel, running just to be running.
Both on page and screen, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a seductively claustrophobic “closed room” enigma, goosed into a pop-culture phenomenon by the addition of Lisbeth Salander, the 85-pound, 4-foot-9-inch bisexual punk with a photographic memory, an abused and institutionalized past, and a convincing way with a golf club. (Read more about the character on film.)
Dragon’s cinematic sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire is more of a forward-charging thriller than a deep, brooding mystery. Directed by Daniel Alfredson, it propels itself along with a more immediate, modern-day threat: Lisbeth’s friend and sometime-lover, the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (thanklessly sturdy Michael Nyqvist), is drawn into investigating a sexual slavery ring while Salander goes into hiding after being framed for murder. So there’s still lots of online researching (and psycho-sexual violence), but hey, there’s also kickboxing!
As a film, Fire works well enough, plunging us into the increasingly dangerous investigation and its ties to the halls of power. But where Dragon benefited from a fascinating, tightly contained mystery wrapped in that Swedish-winter chill, Fire feels strung out into a series of little adventures, discordant pieces of a much larger—and yet less emotionally compelling—puzzle.
Luckily the half-Spanish Swedish actress Noomi Rapace is back to play Salander, continuing to give the character a humanity beyond just a collection of “punk” tics. The good news is that Rapace continues to peel back layers of Lisbeth with dark, deft skill. The bad news is that for the first half of the story she’s too often a passive heroine in hiding, reacting to events playing out in news stories.
Salander does get to cut loose in the second half, but Larsson then makes the solitary loner too important on a grander scale. Lisbeth was a more interesting character when she was a nobody—Fire’s plot mechanisms draw Salander’s story into wider, national conspiratorial circles that rob her of her sharply honed anonymity.
(Fire also starts to reveal the limits of Larsson’s imagination—there’s not much new here. The villains are straight out of Central Bond Casting, including the hobbled mastermind and his hulking Jaws-like henchman.)
Oddly, this middle film of the trilogy feels like the sadistic Swedish version of The Empire Strikes Back, from the revelation of secret ancestries to its uncertain ending. I haven’t read the last book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (the film version hits the States this week), but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it contains Ewoks.
The Girl Who Played with Fire may not boast as strong a story as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—despite solid blows of (literally) hard-hitting action, it doesn’t grab and yank you in like that first tale did. But it still has plenty of Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander, and really, do we need much else?
NOTE: On DVD, both films on have both subtitles and English-language audio dubbed tracks, so you can chose which you prefer to play.