The Girl Who Played with Fire (2010)
So in the few short months since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opened in the spring, the book series has catapulted to even new reaches of fame. It even appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly under the headline, “The hottest books on the planet.” I’ll take their word on that one. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third book in late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s series was finally released stateside, and depending upon when you read this, is probably still on the best-seller list. Larsson’s trilogy of novels is a global publishing phenomenon. The first film in the series made over $10 million dollars in the United States and was the top-grossing film in Europe last year. That says something about a 150-minute Swedish thriller with no-names attached. The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second film in the series and naturally couldn’t live up to expectations after the first smash movie. The second film is good, not great, but really whets the appetite for the concluding movie to come.
It’s been one year since the events of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The titular tattooed-girl, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), has been living abroad. Her ally and one-time lover, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), has been trying to get in contact with her but to no avail. Blomvist is about to publish a damning report about sex trafficking with some pretty high-profile names attached as members. The authors of the article are then executed and Lisbeth’s fingerprints are found on the gun left at the crime scene. Salander’s court-appointed guardian, the one who viciously raped her in the previous film, is also found murdered. Blomkvist is certain his companion is innocent and goes about investigating who is truly responsible. Salander comes out of hiding and back to Sweden where she tries to clear her name the best way she knows how. All roads seem to lead to a figure known as “Zala,” a Soviet spy who defected to Sweden ages ago but who has been carrying on in the shadows ever since.
The focus with Fire in on Lisbeth Salander, which is exactly the character the audience wants to spend the most time with. Salander split duty with Blomkvist in the first film. They were equals, but a crusading journalist just isn’t as interesting as a five-foot Gothic ass-kicking computer hacker. As I wrote: “Mikael isn’t a blah character by any means but he seems to serve as an expository device, the guy who uncovers the secrets and gets to be the helpless foil to Lisbeth. I suppose for maximum narrative effect a straight man would be required to be paired with Lisbeth.” She is the star of the series so it’s a great pleasure to watch her receive oodles of screen time. The second film is significantly devoted to the history of Salander, her back-story, her father, what she did to get locked away in a mental ward (which was hinted at before). The sex trafficking murders are merely a narrative smokescreen. Being framed for the murders puts Lisbeth on defense, but the sex trafficking stuff and the high-profile johns quickly dissolve in the wake of a standard investigation into the mysterious “Zala.” The mystery of this film is really the mystery of Salander’s back-story and family tree. However, being focused primarily on Lisbeth Salander also means that everybody else gets sidelined. She’s on the run and trying to clear her name, but that doesn’t give much room for other people to contribute to the narrative. Blomkvist gets to pensively look at his computer screen a lot and always show up one step behind our heroine. The two are kept apart for nearly the entire movie.
Rapace is still the best reason to see the series. She inhabits the character with tremendous intensity and skill. If you stripped away all the aesthetics, the Goth trinkets, you would still have a vital character. As I wrote before: “There’s much more to this girl than a dragon tattoo and a spiked collar. Rapace doesn’t let the outfits overwhelm her. There’s a certain joyful recklessness to her character hidden beneath a veneer of steely coolness.” Because of her mysterious nature and painful past, Rapace must play all emotions through a prism of emotional reserve. Even though we get a lot more of Salander’s past explained, I felt like we got to know her as a character better in the first flick where she could breathe and behave “normally.” Thanks to being on the run for murder, it’s hard to argue that Lisbeth ever gets a chance to simply be her complicated self, which robs the audience of an appealing character. We project the interest we felt for her from the first film to the Salander stand-in represented in the second film. She’s still a resourceful, loyal, and cavalier presence, but the plot corners her into being a creature of action. She becomes the fantasy bisexual ass-kicking protagonist that was merely hinted at previously. That sounds like a good thing, but trust me, it does the audience a disservice to box in such a fascinating character.
Girl Who Played with Fire is nowhere near the complete film experience that the first film offered. This movie feels like one half and the continuing half, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, won’t be out until later in the fall. As such, it’s hard to fully analyze certain storylines at play. I imagine that the sex trafficking storyline will carry on with the third film because of the tease that high-profile figures in government and police offices were involved. It already establishes a conflict and a set of antagonists ready for the third film. Then again, I may be too hopeful and the storylines of interest in Part Two may be completely dropped or mishandled by Part Three (see: Matrix sequels, Pirates of the Caribbean sequels). Girl Who Played with Fire does a decent job of setting up a narrative base and establishing a one-shot villain, somebody to be dispatched by episode’s end. But the movie feels far from complete, and sadly I won’t know until later whether that incomplete feeling is from breaking up a continuing storyline or from deficits of filmmaking. There are too many loose ends with Girl Who Played with Fire for it to feel complete, and thus it cannot help but suffer in comparison to its predecessor.
Where the movie goes haywire is in its adoption of action tropes. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was more of a slow-burning thriller with some nasty flashes of violence. The second in the trilogy seems to take place more in the realm of action cinema, which means that things get a little preposterous. There are a lot more car chases, henchmen, fistfights, shootouts, and it almost unravels at the end. Slanader seems to transform into the Bride, sharing two key abilities from Uma Thurman?s character in the Kill Bill series (that’s about as spoilery as I want to get). Salander just becomes like a pint-sized Terminator; she’s indestructible and capable of amazing feats. It’s like the Swedes took the Hollywood edict that every sequel had to be bigger and better than the original. There’s even a lesbian love scene before the 20-minute mark, in case the audience was already getting bored (presented like something out of Cinemax late-night TV). I appreciated that the original film respected the intelligence of the audience, giving a deluge of information and characters to sort and trusting that in time we could follow along. The Girl Who Played with Fire is far less complicated in scope. In fact, it’s a fairly rote detective story that only dishes out clues when the characters need to progress. The first film actually utilized good detective work; the second film just has everything fall into people’s laps at predetermined points of need. The tension doesn’t manifest as ferociously as it did in Dragon Tattoo. For goodness sake, the chief antagonist has a hired goon that is actually a rip-off of a James Bond villain from The World is Not Enough, which was an awful Bond movie! The end focuses too much on the bloody confrontation between Lisbeth and a chief antagonist and an axe that apparently fails to mortally wound people when swung at their craniums.
I think the switch in directors, from Niels Arden Oplev to Daniel Alfredson, has something to do with the slip in quality. To American audiences, this might not ever register, but the films have completely different tones. The turnover feels less abrupt thanks to the cast reappearing. The direction feels less focused, more casual and pedestrian, relying on that grimy green/orange cinematography that Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds) always favored so much. Here’s another thing I learned. When it’s not a snowy winter, Sweden looks pretty much like Canada. Seriously, the landscapes do nothing in this movie to distinguish it.
Now that sounds like a lot of quibbles, like I’m quibbling Girl Who Played with Fire to death. In short, it’s not as good as the first one, and the final 20 minutes proves it, but it is still a finely entertaining movie. Even with a less complicated plot, the movie manages to be smarter than most of its Hollywood brethren. It’s more an action movie than a dark, lurid thriller like its predecessor, which means there will be certain limitations on the use of your brain. But the movie plays off our residual good will from the last one, it’s interesting enough, and Lisbeth Salander is rightly the star, so it’s enough to forgive. We’ll see in the fall whether The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest can provide a satisfying close to the popular series. As proven, never count Salander out.
Nate’s Grade: B