The Girl Who Played with Fire

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Noomi Rapace returns as compelling hacker Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” the mostly disappointing sequel to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The second story in the late Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire” trades the missing person mystery of the first novel for a hydra-headed yarn that weaves together homicide, sex trafficking, a former Soviet secret agent, Salander’s troubled past, and a huge cast of cops and criminals in a cat-and-mouse procedural that works much better on the page than the streamlined movie adaptation. Fans of the novel might enjoy making book-to-film comparisons, and Rapace is still fun to watch, but the movie often feels perfunctory and unpolished.

While the intimacy of Henrik Vanger’s anguish over the loss of his great-niece cast a strong spell in the inaugural episode, the more outrageous adornments of “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” particularly the backstory detailing Salander’s biography, diminish much of the heroine’s allure. Of course, Larsson mapped out his principal character’s dossier long before readers discovered her magnetism, but more knowledge about Salander means less room to project our own speculations about the things that make her tick. In “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” Salander morphs from a brilliant but still credible investigator to the linchpin in an espionage-connected government conspiracy.

This James Bond-like turn of events places the already formidable Salander in the realm of an altogether different genre, and Larsson’s reliance on a beloved soap opera staple will be no surprise to those who enjoy working out plot twists and revelations. From “The Empire Strikes Back” to “Angel Heart” to “The Boondock Saints,” movies have lavished plenty of melodramatic attention on shocking disclosures of paternity, and “The Girl Who Played with Fire” addresses themes of attempted patricide as well as revenge-fueled filicide. At best, the device allows viewers to experience the vicarious thrill of much needed payback. At worst, it smacks of lazy storytelling.

While director Niels Arden Oplev infused the big screen version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” with a glossy sophistication that skittered over the most gaping plot conveniences and coincidences, Daniel Alfredson – who takes over in the director’s chair – stages the action with blunt straightforwardness more akin to hour-long episodic television drama than bigger-budgeted theatrical fare. Alfredson also grapples with the disadvantage of realizing many of the book’s most implausible details. The terrifying giant who feels no pain, a former Sapo agent who is easily suckered by a bogus prize offer, and the freakishly disfigured monster who succumbs to the “curse of the talking villain” are chief offenders.

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nykvist) believes steadfastly in Salander’s innocence despite evidence connecting her to a double murder (with a third added shortly thereafter). In the novel, Larsson turns the question of Salander’s possible guilt into a suspenseful stratagem that propels the simultaneously occurring chains of action. The movie takes little interest in the same tactic, a failure that deflates much of the psychological intrigue manifested in Blomkvist’s fascination with his onetime lover. Additionally, “The Girl Who Played with Fire” ends with the kind of messy uncertainty that can only be resolved by the next chapter.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/23/10.

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