Sophomore Jinx

With Fire, Stieg Larsson’s trilogy crashes and burns

The Girl Who Played With Fire—the second installment in the film adaptation of the late Stieg Larsson’s large-scale crime trilogy, Millennium—pales in comparison to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The compelling Noomi Rapace returns as the series’ bisexual Goth-girl computer hacker heroine, Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth has taken the money she appropriated at the end of the first film to see the world and purchase a chic apartment in Stockholm.

Lisbeth’s court-appointed guardian, who raped Lisbeth at great personal expense when she took revenge in the first installment, turns up dead after she pays him a visit. Lisbeth becomes a fugitive from the law after learning that she is the primary suspect.

Meanwhile, two romantically attached journalists working on a sex-trafficking story for Lisbeth’s journalist/publisher pal Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), also turn up murdered. Once again, fingerprints at the scene of the crime point to Lisbeth as the shooter. Convinced of her innocence, Blomkvist initiates his own investigation into the upper echelons of Swedish society implicated in the sex trafficking cover-up.

The trouble with the story is that the mystery isn’t as compelling it was in the first installment, and the story is back-loaded to a fault. We wait impatiently for Lisbeth and Blomkvist to unite and work together as they did in the first film, but the moment never arrives. As with this year’s Red Riding Trilogy, the Millennium triad proves a problematic format for sustaining thematic energy and emotional truth.

Where The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was layered with a depth of dramatic tension around a 40-year-old mystery involving the disappearance of a woman connected to a Kennedyesque political family, the sequel spells out a more prosaic storyline. Lisbeth seems to have gotten past her romantic attraction for Blomkvist and is ready to return to Stockholm and resume her swinging bi-sexual lifestyle, albeit from a more adult perspective. Blomkvist is back to running Millennium magazine, sleeping with his same-aged editor and hiring upstart journalists to cut their teeth on a big scandal story. Part of the problem here is that the sex trafficking subplot isn’t personalized enough to serve as anything more than narrative window dressing. The politically powerful bad guys are painted with broad strokes that minimize the effect they have on their characterless female victims.

The most gratuitously entertaining scene takes place in a barn where Lisbeth and a local champion boxer take on an oversize villain who suffers from a neurological disorder that prevents him from feeling any pain. It’s a convincing all-out brawl that appropriately comes to a fiery conclusion, but doesn’t do much for moving the narrative in any meaningful direction.

The film takes on a few too many pulpy B-movie tropes that conflict with its otherwise serious tone. It’s fun to see Lisbeth use a taser to take on a couple of badass bikers sent to haul her in to the local kingpin, but a certain buried-alive sequence pulls the drama into the realm of farce. The tonal shift between Dragon Tattoo and Girl Who Played with Fire can be attributed to a change of directors. Daniel Alfredson’s sense of creating suspense and focusing on small details served Larsson’s source material better than newcomer Niels Arden Oplev’s approach. Oplev wants the film to be flashier and less gritty than the story mandates. The director stresses the narrative rhythm. The result is a film that clangs when it should glide, and leaves you always wanting something that the characters are no longer able to deliver—believability.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (R) ★★☆☆☆

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