Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has become a genuine literary sensation, and the two books that followed have made fans all the more sad that the Swedish author died before he could complete the ten-part "Millennium Series." It was only a couple of months ago that North American filmgoers got their first glimpse of Michael Nyqvist as investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and Noomi Rapace as the bizarre and compelling Lisbeth Salander in the dark and oftentimes brutal adaptation of Dragon Tattoo, but here comes the sequel hot on its heels (if you'll pardon the pun).
The Girl Who Played With Fire picks up more than a year after the events of Dragon Tattoo. Blomkvist is back on top of his magazine, having cleared his name of a previous scandal, but Salander has left him high and dry, disappearing without explanation or leaving contact info, abruptly cutting their odd romance short. She has spent the intervening time traveling the world, ultimately landing in the Caribbean. At the start of Fire, she has had enough of the vagabond lifestyle and is returning to Sweden. Her timing couldn't be worse, however, as mysterious parties are suddenly interested in Lisbeth's juvenile record. In 1993, she attacked a man with gasoline and matches, which led to her being committed to a mental hospital and made a ward of the state. This goes a long way to explaining the computer hacker's antisocial tendencies. She is the perfect detective: solitary, driven, and blessed with a photographic memory. Naturally, this has earned her more than a few enemies.
The people looking for Lisbeth start with her state-appointed guardian, Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), a sadistic abuser who picked on the wrong girl when he attacked Salander in Dragon Tattoo. She is blackmailing him with evidence of his wrongdoing, and so he is more than happy to work with the bad guys to take Salander out. This is a deadly miscalculation on his part. Bjurman ends up dead, as do two reporters working on a human trafficking story for Blomkvist. All three homicides are pinned on Salander, who has no choice but to head further underground to clear her name. Blomkvist is the only one who believes she didn't do it, so he runs a parallel investigation to find the connection between Lisbeth and the Russian slavers.
The Girl Who Played With Fire is directed by Daniel Alfredson (Tic Tac), who took over the final two installments of the series from Niels Arden Oplev. It is also adapted by a different writer, Jonas Frykberg, and there is a definite difference between this film and its predecessor. Where The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had a rich style that went well with its twisted mystery, both the plot of Fire and the way it's told come off as far more conventional. The movie is essentially a "wronged woman on the run" tale, and though there are a couple of surprising plot developments, nothing as involved or fascinating as the serial murders of Dragon Tattoo. I just couldn't get into it as much as I did the first time around. By comparison, The Girl Who Played With Fire seemed all-too normal and, I hate to say, kind of dull.
It's possible that part of what makes this outing different for me is that I haven't yet read the novel. Whereas last time I could fill in any holes in the script with details I had gleaned from the book, I was stuck with any gaps in Fire due to gaps in my own knowledge. Then again, since The Girl Who Played With Fire and the forthcoming third installment, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, were originally made as a multi-part television miniseries and then edited down into a feature film after the success of Dragon Tattoo, the feeling that something is missing might be because something really is missing.
Either way, The Girl Who Played With Fire is a bit of a letdown following behind its superior forerunner. I was a lot less involved in how the mystery would play out, and I mainly stuck with what was happening due to my attachment to the characters. Blomkvist is largely relegated to a supporting role this time around--and perhaps the lack of interaction between him and Lisbeth is another reason this film isn't as interesting. There is more suspense in waiting for them to reconnect than there is in the actual frame job. Such is the force of the Lisbeth Salander character, the rest of the cast can't quite measure up. Noomi Rapace continues to own the role in a way I never thought possible when reading Larsson's prose. She's fantastic as the cold and calculating anti-hero, finding the right nuance to make Lisbeth's slow thaw believable.
Too bad the movie itself is not entirely believable. The bloody climax of The Girl Who Played With Fire pushes the bounds of credibility. Salander is supposed to be able to kick a lot of ass, but she's not superhuman. There are a couple of events in the final scenes--including one involving a tiny cigarette case and a whole lot of dirt--that go too far. Just because another character declares that she is invincible, it doesn't mean Lisbeth really is. Or that I should forget basic scientific principles.
So, overall, I was disappointed by the The Girl Who Played With Fire. Fans of the book series or the first film will likely still want to see it, however, and opinions are likely to vary on the success of this one. I have a friend who is Swedish who I talk to from time to time about the "Millennium Series; she has seen the whole trilogy and says that this middle part is actually her favorite, because it's mainly action and Lisbeth Salander dishing out some hurt. Given how dark and heady Part 1 was, I can see where this second installment could serve as a nice breather. I suppose the beauty of a sprawling series like this one is that it can be many different things to many different people. I wasn't as stoked on Part 2, but that doesn't mean I won't be around for Part 3. I'm hoping that The Girl Who Played With Fire is merely the rickety bridge we've got to take in order to get to a more satisfying destination.