REVIEWED: THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE

The Girl Who Played with Fire

As if Lisbeth wasn't enough of an oddball...

Among the few critics not to fall in love with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s unnecessarily distended runtime and sub-CSI storyline, I was nevertheless compelled by the performances of both Noomi Rapace as the titular femme and Michael Nyqvist as her journalist confidante. Although still compromised by many of the original film’s problems, this sequel is more level-headed and willing to admit that, in fact, Shakespeare it ain’t, and both Rapace and Nyqvist are still fabulous in their roles, even if their chemistry together is not exploited for the sake of accuracy to the source novel.

Reconvening roughly one year after the first film’s events, Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) is returning to Sweden and trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life. However, she has a few loose ends to tie off first, namely her continued blackmail of her guardian Bjurman, who wants revenge for her literally branding him as a sex pest. Millenium magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) has since been exonerated and sees Lisbeth only very rarely, instead working on a story about sex trafficking with avid pHD student Dag Stevensson (Hans Christian Thulin). However, when Dag and his girlfriend wind up dead prior to publishing a list of known sex trade customers, Lisbeth’s prints are found on the gun, and suspecting a frame-up, Mikael must attempt to clear her name before it is too late.

As with the first film, the routine TV-type mystery plot thankfully takes a frequent back seat to the characters. This sequel explores more of Lisbeth’s compassionate side, as she visits her stroke-afflicted former guardian, and also keeps her visceral sexual energy in the picture, depicting a passionate lesbian encounter with an old acquaintance. These moments prime the later intensity of Salander’s character, yet you’ll still have to sit through some incredibly lazy plotting before the results emerge. One particular instance – as Blomkvist tries to ensnare a sex trafficker by sending him spam that claims he won a prize – relies on an incredible amount of convenience, and isn’t an especially smart, inventive or even very realistic way to entrap someone.

There are brief glimpses of ambivalence – such as when Blomkvist worries what publishing the list of sex customers might do for the women afflicted – yet the film’s dominant morality is generally black-and-white. In separate narrative strands, Lisbeth and Blomkvist endeavour to ensnare the leches in separate ways – Blomkvist as a driven journo, while Lisbeth goes theatrical and wears facepaint while pontificating like someone out of a Saw sequel – yet the film struggles to break out of a repetitive rut that piles bodies up and gets Salander in deeper and deeper trouble. Not to mention, the main anatagonist for the most part is a hulking blonde brute who is the sort of guy typically referred to in 80s action films as “The Russian”. He goes around beating all of the good guys up rather unimaginatively, but the fact that he suffers from an analgesic disorder – which cuts off his pain receptors and makes him seem superhuman – reminds us that unlike the first film, this is a lot more in touch with its own pulpy, gumshoe-inspired nature.

The key mystery – of finding out who is at the top of this trafficker food chain – is at least quite compelling if still follow-the-breadcrumb fare as with the first film. There’s nothing more engaging here than decent US thrillers have done over the years, and frankly the most engaging element is the big tease that is waiting for Blomkvist and Lisbeth to meet once again, yet the grand disappointment holding this film back is that they don’t meet for even longer than in the first film. Their correspondence is nothing but short e-mails and CCTV camera observations until the film’s final three minutes, where they exhchange a few seconds of dialogue and the credits roll. For just about anyone who admired the chemistry between Rapace and Nyqvist in the first film, it feels like a massive misstep, and while it obviously aims to follow Stieg Larsson’s narrative, there’s the genuine feeling that their meeting earlier in the film might have tightened a few bolts in other areas too.

Even if there is more contrivance this time – for boxing gyms have e-mail in this film; since when do boxing gyms even have computers? – and it’s all a bit too easily-greased when trying to get wrapped up in the mystery, at least the final showdown is soaked in suspense and high tension. The silly, Kill Bill-inspired nature of one later scene, however, causes one to wonder how anyone can treat the novel equivalent as a serious, clever piece of art rather than a sleazy bit of pulp if that scene is in there. The film, conversely, brings you back to Earth to this point, and reminds you that these flicks are just well-directed, decently acted B-grade thriller fodder with better-than-average character development.

Still, The Girl Who Played with Fire improves upon the pacing issues of the first film by being a near half-hour shorter and also feeling more concise in the story arc that it tells. It still moves slowly and could easily have been a tight 100 minutes if they cut all of the dramatic pauses out, but it does well to foreground character over cookie-cutter mystery. However, given the talent in front of and behind the camera, these stories should be a lot more interesting than they really are. Once again, the whole phenomenon is fairly baffling; it is nothing that hasn’t been done better before, and the lack of interaction between the two protagonists is disappointing given their obvious chemistry from the first film.

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