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The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an international best-selling trilogy that gave way to three hit Swedish movies, one Hollywood remake that netted a Best Actress nomination, and millions in worldwide revenue. The problem was that its author, Stieg Larsson, died of a heart attack in 2004, before the publication of any of the original novels. The property was too valuable to simply collect dust and thus a new author came aboard to tell further adventures of Lisbeth Salander, the pint-sized Gothic avenger. A new set of novels began being published in 2015, and after David Fincher’s 2011 version underperformed at the box-office, it seemed expected to reboot the franchise with a new big screen story that had yet to be adapted. In steps a new director, a new dragon-tattooed lady for The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Unfortunately, my fears have come true and the eventual reckoning has happened: they have made Lisbeth Salander boring.

Lisbeth (Claire Foy) is thrown into another criminal conspiracy with shadowy forces at play. A network of high-powered assassins, known as “spiders,” has stolen a dangerous technology that will allow the user control of nuclear arsenals. Lisbeth is hired to retrieve this tech, betrayed, and then on the run from Swedish authorities, professional killers, a dogged NSA operative (Laketih Stanfield), and the head of this cabal, Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks, Blade Runner 2049), her long lost sister Lisbeth left behind years ago.

In her first 2010 outing, Salander was presented as a complex, emotionally withdrawn figure, eminently capable but flawed, hurt, and looking to punish others from her fraught history with terrible men. Strip away all the Gothic trinkets and camouflage, her assertions of identity, and she’s still a deeply intriguing human being. However, even the latter Swedish films started veering in this more derivative direction. As I wrote presciently with the second Swedish Dragon Tattoo movie back in 2010: “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.” With Spider’s Web, Lisbeth Salander has become a Gothic Jason Bourne spy figure, and as anyone who has seen the Bourne movies can attest, he’s the most boring character in his own movies, which is why he needs to be kept constantly on the move and hunted. He’s only interesting when he’s getting out of jams, and Lisbeth is now sadly in that realm.

Lisbeth has been reduced to her most essential, and most superficial, characteristics, which also go for the film as a whole. The Dragon Tattoo series began as a twisty investigative procedural with a litany of suspects and dark secrets worth killing over. From there, the Swedish films turned Lisbeth into an indestructible Terminator capable of getting the drop on anyone and axe-fighting oversized men. The Swedish series began more grounded as a mystery/thriller and suddenly, and regrettably, transformed into a preposterous Hollywood-style action-thriller, following the edict of bigger being better. That same mentality has carried over past Larsson’s contributions, and now Lisbeth has become an action superhero and the series has become trashy fun, high-calorie junk food, a safe excursion to a seedy underbelly. The Girl in the Spider’s Web still provides a consistent degree of entertainment, but it’s not playing at a higher level, content to hand-wave away its story for cool chases and fights. It’s the kind of movie where, to escape an encroaching fireball, Lisbeth dives into a bathtub of water. It makes for a visually interesting shot but it’s pretty cliché 90s action movie stuff. Director Fede Alvarez has a slick handle with visuals and evidenced real talent at sustaining and developing tension with 2016’s Don’t Breathe. He has obvious visual talent. There are some engaging fights, like a close-quarter struggle in a bathroom, and some nifty chase scenes, like a motorcycle chase over a frozen lake. I would have liked even more action if Spider’s Web was going to brush aside narrative and moral complexity for stylish set pieces.

The story of The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels like a lukewarm repackaging of spy clichés, and the film does little to make any of it feel important or relevant. There’s a super powerful technology that everyone wants, which falls into the wrong hands, and now it’s about retrieving this device and saving the world. That’s like the plot of just about every James Bond movie. It’s a formula, but where Spider’s Web missteps are that it doesn’t add anything else to this staid foundation. There are scenes but it’s usually about this group going after this group, or this group now going after this group, and without wider relevance it becomes redundant plot placeholders, something meant to distract long enough to get our characters from Point A to Point B. With a mystery, there’s a natural momentum that builds as the case builds coherency and the investigation focuses the direction. With action thriller mode, Spider’s Web just has a bunch of guys that occasionally interact until the movie needs some of them dead. This model by itself can work but it requires concerted effort, and that just isn’t present here.

The most interesting aspect of Spider’s Web is the further examination on Salander’s troubled upbringing, this time introducing a sister that has been plotting vengeance. Salander is, first and foremost, the selling point of this franchise; she is, after all, the titular girl with that particular tattoo. She is what separates this from any other paperback thriller. The Swedish sequels opened up her past traumas with her Soviet-defected father. He was the Big Bad Man behind the scenes trying to institutionalize and neutralize her. While skirting into the above-stated dangerous territory, the Swedish sequels still knew that Lisbeth Salander’s complicated history was the real mystery the audience craved, and it set up a series of antagonists ready to be foiled for years-in-the-making payback. I don’t really know how the events of Spider’s Web gibe with the overall series. I had to look up whether the evil father in the opening was the same evil father in the other films (both are listed as Alexander Zalachenko, so I think so). But the established history has Lisbeth committed after trying to set dear old dad on fire to save her abused mother. I don’t see how any of that is likely if she escapes her father’s clutches as a pre-teen and is supposedly on the run. The secret Salander sister revelation also impacts little. She was the one left behind, whose continued abuse and degradation are strongly referenced. It doesn’t feel like Lisbeth harbors great guilt over leaving her sister behind. During their final face-to-face, Camilla actually poses a worthy question: “Why did the woman who hurts men who hurt women never come back and save her own abused sister?” Because this storyline is flagrantly underdeveloped, the evil sister angle is a cheap twist. There’s nothing to the Camilla character, so she serves as a symbol of shame, and yet the movie doesn’t seem to capitalize on this in the slightest, which is a puzzling disservice.

Foy (Netflix’s The Crown, First Man) is having a big year for herself but feels slightly miscast. She never really gets an opportunity to show off her range, which is a byproduct of the streamlined, reductionist screenplay emphasizing bare plot mechanics. She is missing the intensity or fire that we’ve seen in prior Salanders, breakout-star Noomi Rapace and the Oscar-nominated Rooney Mara. When Foy tries for glower you see the effort. She’s more grumpy than tortured, like maybe she skipped a meal. Even with the requisite piercings, tattoos, and black leather wardrobe, Foy seems a bit too clean-cut for the part. Personal admission: Foy with her sharp bangs, saucer-eyes, facial shape, and Gothic accessories, looks remarkably like an ex-girlfriend of mine from the early 2000s. That was something that kept sneaking into my mind throughout the film, which made the experience a tad stranger as if I was imagining an ex engaged in action heroics. Even excusing that personal connection, Foy ranks a distant third place for the Girls With.

The new Dragon Tattoo movie will likely also be its last. I can’t imagine fans getting too much pleasure out of a streamlined, underdeveloped spy thriller that sands away the edge and complexity of its characters for rote action movie chases. It’s not a bad movie and it does carry moments of excitement and entertainment, but it’s also become a standard Hollywood thriller, no different than a dozen other high-tech, junky hacker thrillers. The Girl in the Spider’s Web gets caught in its own formulaic web. If Lisbeth Salander has been transformed into a standard action hero, then we don’t deserve more adventures.

Nate’s Grade: C

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Nothing says holiday treat for the whole family like a nearly three-hour movie about rape. Late author Stieg Larsson’s best-selling trilogy made three very successful Swedish films, all released last year in indie theaters. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood optioned The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, benefiting those averse to reading subtitles. At least they hired the right director in David Fincher, a man used to plumbing the depths of human depravity in films like Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac. Fincher’s take is pretty dark and hardcore, but once you wash all that perfectionist grime off, I prefer the Swedish film in just about every way.

Crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is smarting from a court case that found him guilty of libel. He’s commissioned by a wealthy businessman Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his granddaughter, Harriet. Henrik strongly believes she was murdered by one of the sinister members of his extended family, a group of shady characters with some allegiance to Nazism. Mikael is assisted by the unorthodox computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a rail-thin Gothic gal clad in tattoos and piercings. Their partnership sometimes gets blurry as they grow closer over the course of the investigation. Together the pair investigates a series of grisly, ritualistic murders related to Harriet’s disappearance, and the closer they get to discover the truth the more dangerous things get.

So the burning question: is Fincher’s take better than the original Swedish version? Well, in some areas yes but in many areas I’d have to say no, that I prefer the lower budget, no-name Swedish version. Obviously a director of Fincher’s caliber is going to significantly raise the quality of a production, and the technical merits of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo are without question. This is a seedy, grimy, prurient, and very dark (in both lighting and thematic material) little movie. There’s always been an eerie beauty to Fincher’s cool aesthetics, and it’s on display here as well. Many of Fincher’s Social Network crew carried right over to Dragon Tattoo, so the editing is crisp, the cinematography sleek, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is a storm of ominous tones. Their plaintive score is actually a fairly unmemorable muddle, never approaching the energy, intricacy, or diversity of their Oscar-winning score for The Social Network. However, the extra polish and the glut of familiar actors takes away from the intrigue of the movie. When something meant to be gritty is too artistically stunning, it detracts from the thematic intent of the story. That sounds like a contrary way to insult Fincher for making his movie look too good, but perhaps that’s the best way of stating the point. Niels Arden Oplev is nowhere near the filmmaker that Fincher is, nor did he have the budget or creative freedom afforded Fincher, but perhaps someone of lesser talents was better suited to best tell this tale. By all means, the American Dragon Tattoo is a more visually alluring film, but Oplev’s film is more fully felt. I recently rewatched the Swedish version again for points of comparison and found myself much more involved in the characters, the story, and the actors, even though I had already seen the movie. Fincher’s version may be the better-looking movie, but surprisingly Oplev’s is just the better movie, period.

The adaptation by Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List) actually hews closer to Larsson’s book than the Swedish film, though Zallian redirects the film into a new ending. But the additions don’t seem to add anything of substance to the narrative (Blomkvist’s teenage daughter; dead cat), and the new ending feels more confused than helpful. Most of all, Zallian’s script devotes less time to the characters of Lisbeth and Blomkvist. I had a better understanding of these characters and their complicated, shifting relationship in the Swedish film. That narrative was much cleaner with helpful, clarifying procedural details and a dose of ambiguity. Simply put, the story just flowed better in the Swedish film. The personal connection Blomkvist had to Harriet (she was his babysitter long ago) has also been severed. Many of the story’s problems are still the same regardless of language or adapter. There is a clear disparity when it comes to audience interest in the two leads. What’s more interesting, a punky, bisexual, computer hacker or a disgraced, somewhat bland journalist? Exactly. Also, the story takes far too long to put our lead characters together, over an hour at that. The murder mystery is filled with murky plot points, pieces that seem like they might be integral but then turn out to be incidental. It takes a good while to process and familiarize oneself with the expository details of the case, but under Zallian’s draft, the mystery is given less room to breath. For a movie clocking in at 150 minutes, things feel untidy and rushed. The resolution feels drawn out to ungodly Lord of the Rings-lengths; I swear there must be a solid 20 minutes after the eventual serial killer is dealt with. It just feels like it goes on forever. Still, the characters are what ultimately makes Dragon Tattoo engaging, and Zallian’s efforts cannot dampen the captivating, curious nature of Lisbeth Salander.

Both Craig and Mara give fine performances but I prefer both Swedish actors to the A-listers. Craig is certainly a better actor than his Swedish counterpart, but the role is a middle-aged journalist and not James Bond, and thus a better fit for the unknown Swedish actor, Michael Nyqvist (Mission: impossible: Ghosts Protocol). Blomkvist isn’t supposed to be an ass-kicker. As a result, you don’t feel his terror as he gets in deeper and lands in serious physical jeopardy. Likewise, following in Noomi Rapace’s  (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) shoes was going to be a difficult feat for any actress, but Fincher got the girl he wanted, Mara, who tore down Mark Zuckerberg with precision in The Social Network. Mara commits herself completely to the role and undergoes a severe physical transformation (bleached eyebrows, wiry frame, nipple piercings), but she lacks the intensity of Rapace, the spiteful attitude, the recklessness and the resourcefulness. Rapace felt like a caged animal that could explode at any moment; Mara feels more like a lost puppy. I’m being intentionally cavalier with my word choice. Mara is quite good as Lisbeth; it’s just that Mara can’t quite measure up to the preceding tattooed girl. It feels like there’s a lot more going on with the Swedish Salander, whereas the American (still Swedish) Salander is waiting for her cue. It’s like Mara has dressed the part and waits for the character to just click over.

I’m not one for lazy analysis, but I feel like the uncomfortable issue of sexual violence/ voyeurism needs to be addressed, and I find that everything I wrote a year ago in my original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo review could readily apply to its Hollywood counterpart. So here goes: “The book’s original title was ‘Men Who Hate Women’ and that seems apt given what occurs on screen. Sure there’s a serial murderer on the loose but that’s par for the course. Even the grisly ritualistic killing stuff. But Lisbeth encounters a lot of malice and hostile male aggression, some of it very sickening. There’s a startlingly extended rape sequence, followed by some sadistic, if justifiable, revenge. It all contributes to an overall tone of queasy misogyny that seems to waver between intentional and unintentional. I’m not sure tone-wise whether the movie ever creeps into unsettling voyeurism at the behest of women in explicit sexual peril, but it certainly is a distraction. It can get pretty hard to watch at times in this disturbing thriller. I hope the eventual sequels don’t follow this same queasy, upsetting tone but I also worry that this may be unfortunately part of the books/movies’ appeal.”

For those new to Lisbeth and Larsson’s sordid saga, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will more than likely play well, a squalid thriller with the nicest coat of gloss you could ever hope for given the material. This is dark, rape-heavy stuff, and an odd adult drama to position as a Christmas release, but the collective appeal of the best-selling books should guarantee so many butts in the seats. It’s likely a safe bet that a high majority of those paying customers are unfamiliar with the Swedish version of the same story, which is a shame because, short of a few technical advances, I believe the Swedish film to be the superior movie. It had better acting, more appropriate casting, a rounder narrative that fleshed out the characters, their relationships, and their histories better, and a better score (sorry Trent, better luck next time). It’s still a movie that registers a “good” on most critical accounts, and Lisbeth Salander is still a fascinating person, a wounded warrior that catches the imagination. I’ll be curious to see if the subtitle-free Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does well enough at the box-office to warrant filming the next two decidedly lesser books. Whatever the case, there will always be the Swedish films and Ms. Rapace’s star-making performance.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010)

The worldwide publishing phenomenon comes to a close with the third and final film, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. In the span of nine months, all three Swedish films, based on the late Stieg Larsson’s best-selling books, have been released stateside. Hollywood is already filming the first of three remakes directed by David Fincher (Fight Club), with Fincher’s Social Network star Rooney Mara in Lisbeth’s chunky shoes. Releasing three films in one year, mere months apart, has given the series the feeling of an event. The Girl Who Played with Fire left a lot to tie up, but audiences steeped in the Larsson’s sordid particulars should find something rewarding, albeit unspectacular, in this final chapter.

The third film picks up immediately after events from the previous story. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), punky computer hacker and international badass, is being airlifted to a hospital. She is recovering from a brawl with her father that left her with a bullet in her skull and him with an axe lodged in his (surprisingly, both live. Credit Swedish healthcare). Her father, Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), was a Soviet spy that defected to Sweden in the 1970s. He is a high-value informant, which means that anyone who would compromise or expose Zalachenko needs to be dealt with. And if Zalachenko is going to speak his mind, perhaps he needs to be silenced as well. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), muckraking journalist and Lisbeth’s staunch ally, is trying to protect his friend and one-time lover by exposing the corrupt and powerful. Lisbeth is trying to be silenced, and if assassins don’t work then the state will try her for attempted murder and lock her away in a mental institution, the same institution that Lisbeth was committed to at 12 when she tried to save her mother by setting her abusive father ablaze. The sinister Dr. Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom) admitted Lisbeth when she was a child and is eager to have her back in his clutches. He and the other crooked government officials will stop at nothing to put her away and stop Mikael from publishing the truth.

So at the axe-swingin’ conclusion of Girl Who Played with Fire, I felt that some of my conclusion had to be put on hold until I could see the third film, the conclusion to what seemed like one larger film. For Fire I wrote: “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).” Guess what happened? Dropped storylines abound as well as a lack of follow-through on most everything but the major storylines involving Lisbeth’s tortured personal history.

Now that we can all witness how Lisbeth and Mikael have walked off into that Swedish sunset, I can finally and conclusively say that the second film is incomplete and will never be complete. The loose ends abound and characters are completely forgotten, like Lisbeth’s Asian friend/sometime-lover and her boxing pal who took a beating. Apparently their narrative purpose was to take Lisbeth’s licks (could this be the greatest double entendre in the history of film criticism? Yes). The brute that dished out those bruises is a blonde baddie named Neidermann who looks like he was ripped from a bad James Bond flick. He is a straggling loose end that circles the narrative like a lost child in a supermarket (“Are you my mother?”). The high-reaching sex trafficking ring featured in Fire has a tenuous connection to Hornet’s Nest; in Fire we talk about an Evil Shadowy Government and in Hornet’s Nest we see the faces of that Evil Shadowy Government Agents.

If the first film was a slow-burning and lurid thriller, the second film a preposterous action film, then the third film falls clearly into the genre of legal thriller. The majority of the plot revolves around the People vs. Lisbeth Salander. The sluggish opening gives way to a sluggish series of pre-trial preparations. Mikael assigns his sister to serve as Lisbeth’s attorney, and thus we see the behind-the-scenes arrangements as far as gathering evidence, building a case, plotting arguments and counter-arguments, preparing Lisbeth to confront the men who have caused her such suffering and anguish. And being a courtroom thriller, we also get a heavy dose of new characters, almost all of them elderly and somewhat menacing (a guy with cancer even becomes a hired gun for One Last Job). There are a lot of liver-spotted faces to try and sort through, so it helps when the filmmakers add touches to set them apart (one of them wears a bow tie, another has glasses). Given the lethargic nature of assembling a court case, the pacing can get pretty slack. Then there’s the issue of Lisbeth. She spends almost the entire movie in police custody and the first hour or so confined to a hospital bed. It doesn’t make for pulse-pounding stuff. Lisbeth is a willful, defiant, quick-witted creature so it feels like she’s like a caged bird in this third and final film.

Rapace is starting to catch serious Hollywood heat and deservedly so because once again she commands the screen. At first when the series began I was unsure of her acting abilities considering her mysterious character is forced to respond through a prism of emotional reserve. She doesn’t speak much but her intense, cold stares speak volumes to the turmoil she has bubbling under the surface. Restrained to a hospital bed or a jail cell, Rapace is given even less to work with. The part is nearly mute for long stretches of plot. Yet Rapace finds new and interesting ways to channel her character’s intensity and allow the audience to view her thought process. It’s a sign of a talented actor when a character’s internal thinking can become transparent without the need for hyperactive expressions. Lisbeth Salander is a complicated character and the audience deserves to have such an intriguing presence fleshed out into three dimensions. I wrote about the disappointing downgrade of Lisbeth’s character in Fire: “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.” With Hornet’s Nest, we discover the extent of how men have damaged her, which focuses more attention on the person of Lisbeth rather than the Gothic aesthetics. It’s a return to form even if Lisbeth is still remote.

Luckily, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest does manage to offer a satisfying sense of closure. The series has several bad men doing bad things, so it’s rewarding that after sitting through close to seven hours of material yields some long-awaited justice for Lisbeth Salander. We yearn desperately for this pint-sized gal to get her vengeance and for the powerful to find their comeuppance. Watching the antagonists fall would be more fulfilling if they weren’t only introduced a mere hour ago in this movie. Salander doesn’t get to put on her Gothic war paint until her first court appearance. It feels like a triumphant return, complete with a towering and imposing mohawk. Blomkvist’s storylines will always be the movie’s weak point considering he has to compete with the likes of the audacious Salander. In Hornet’s Nest, his magazine team is threatened but you never really take any of it seriously, because of course the crusading journalist will stick by Lisbeth. The ending is less than desired and tries to recycle some of the same action tropes that lead Girl Who Played with Fire astray. The final scene leaves you with a sense of, “Oh, so that really is it? Better get my coat then.”

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest works as a mostly fitting capper to a long-standing mystery series. The bad guys are punished, the good guys prevail, there’s an open-ended resolution that leaves you squirming for more, especially now that Lisbeth is a free woman. At a bloated 145 minutes, Hornet’s Nest can often feel like an overextended Swedish episode of Law and Order. There’s a good 45 minutes that probably could have been left on the cutting room floor. At times the movie feels like it’s lurching along, caught up in the mountain of details. But then it generally finds a way to regain momentum and head to a satisfying close. Still, it’s disappointing that for the majority of the two sequels Lisbeth and Blomkvist have rarely been onscreen together. They worked so well as a team in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I never would have thought that the sequels would take that concept and keep them apart for as long as possible. Too bad author Stieg Larsson isn’t around to write new adventures for his characters, though there are rumors about an unfinished fourth manuscript left on Larsson’s laptop. Until that gets sorted out between Larsson’s widow and his family in Swedish court, I guess the world will have to settle for the forthcoming Hollywood remakes.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)

Heating up the art house cinemas, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is two and a half hours, Swedish, in subtitles, and is absent any familiar faces, and audiences can’t seem to get enough. Based on the international best-selling novel, this independent thriller was the highest grossing European film for 2009 and deceased author Stieg Larsson’s two sequels, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (sounds like a lot of risky behavior for this girl) have also been made into movies with the same cast. So now that America is caught in the midst of Dragon mania, we all won’t have to wait long for the ongoing adventures of the journalist and the Gothic investigator. Both sequels are planned for release this summer, meaning that the entire trilogy will unwind in theaters over the course of only a few brief months. That’s one thing that has to please American audiences — instant gratification. For those unhip to the world of Lisbeth Salander, get ready to take notes because she’s likely to become an indie film icon, at least for an older, well-read demographic (think: your parents).

Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is an investigative journalist sentenced to jail for 6 months after losing a libel case against a large shady corporation. Before he serves his prison sentence, Mikael is approached by a wealthy businessman, Henrik Vagner (Sven-Bertil Taube), convinced that his niece, Harriet, was murdered and her murderer is still taunting him 40 years later. Henrik Vagner lives with various other family members on a remote island. The mysterious clan has some serious skeletons in their closet, and Henrik believes ones of his family members, apart of the powerful Vagner Group, is guilty. Mikael takes refuge on the island and begins to comb over old police documents looking for any overlooked clues. Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) inserts herself into the case. She’s an expert computer hacker and hired by Henrik Vagner to compile a background check of Mikael. But her interest did not end with her assignment. She has hacked into Mikael’s computer and furtively spies on Mikael’s progress. She e-mails him some key breaks in the case and joins Mikael on the island. Together they make rapid progress finding out what happened to Harriet all those years ago, and a serial killer makes note of their encroaching progress.

Thankfully, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a thriller that respects its audience’s intellect by not having to spell out every damn detail, and people, there are a lot of damn details. While the movie feels complete, it still leaves much to the imagination to fill in character back-stories, connect the plot dots, and interpret all those silent glances and meditative stares (granted, it might all get filled in following two sequels). A prime example is when Mikael covets Lisbeth’s photographic memory, telling her what a terrific advantage that must be, and a small pensive look from Lisbeth says all we need. It’s enough to make us re-examine what we think we know concerning her background, and the rest of the movie follows this model. I also appreciated that every break in the case came from good detective work and not some swishy super computer stuff. Though Lisbeth is an expert hacker, nothing these characters do is out of the realm of reality unlike other tech-heavy detectives. The plot is tied in knots and we have all sorts of various suspects and angles. The central mystery needs to be interesting for this movie to work, and it is … after it gets into a second gear. A girl’s disappearance 40 years ago isn’t enough to grab you until the more sinister and sordid elements come out into the fray. It also hurts that there’s a clear disparity when it comes to character interest. 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.

Lisbeth is an unorthodox choice for a researcher given the fact that she’s pierced, punky, and full of attitude and ink, including a certain titular dragon tattoo. But she’s also fiercely intelligent, resourceful, intuitive, and wounded, which makes her a fairly fascinating character. She’s an exciting mystery of a character. She’s wounded and defensive but cavalier and intentionally confrontational at the same time, an exciting conflict. Her attitude is roughly, “So what if I dress as I do? So what if I have a healthy sexual appetite? So what if I am a woman? I demand to be treated with respect.” Lisbeth commands attention even though she feels uncomfortable being gazed at. She’s more than some female fantasy protagonist, though a punky, bisexual ass-kicking gal will fit the bill for some, she is a full-bodied character and a terrific break from the traditional investigative heroes of mysteries.

I asked myself midway through if the aesthetics were standing in for character; if you stripped away all that punk rock glamour and the shock value of a “Goth PI” than would there be anything compelling left (I was sort of thinking of the Gothic lab tech on America’s quizzically #1 TV show of the moment, the alphabet soup-friendly NCIS)? The answer, I found, was a resounding yes. 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. Rapace has to play many different elements through a specific prism of emotional reserve, which makes her character, and her performance, less showy. It makes for a very good performance but ultimately leaves the final judgment of Rapace in question. Despite the international acclaim, Lisbeth isn’t exactly a star-making role. Yet, at least.

The story is awash in details, which is both a positive and negative reflection of the screenplay. There’s likely too many plot details for one screenplay and several elements feel like they may be integral when they really turn out to be incidental, like Nazi ancestry and the lone bridge off the island. Don’t get me all excited with Nazi ancestry and then have it become incidental to the plot. Nonetheless, it takes a good deal of time to process and familiarize all the numerous expository groundwork of the case, and time is what The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has to offer. At 150 minutes, the movie follows a pretty languid pace and doesn’t get moving until an hour in when our two leads join forces. Echoing that deliberate sense of pacing are the sparse and snowy landscapes of Sweden communicating isolation and looming danger. I can pretty much guarantee that the Hollywood adaptation in the works will not be nearly as leisurely with its pacing. The film’s resolution is very drawn out but that’s due to the many niggling plot threads that need to be attended to. It makes for a satisfying albeit mildly exhausting conclusion.

The book’s original title was “Men Who Hate Women” and that seems apt given what occurs on screen. Sure there’s a serial murderer on the loose but that’s par for the course. Even the grisly ritualistic killing stuff. But Lisbeth encounters a lot of malice and hostile male aggression, some of it very sickening. There’s a startlingly extended rape sequence, followed by some sadistic, if justifiable, revenge. It all contributes to an overall tone of queasy misogyny that seems to waver between intentional and unintentional. I’m not sure tone-wise whether the movie ever creeps into unsettling voyeurism at the behest of women in explicit sexual peril, but it certainly is a distraction. It can get pretty hard to watch at times in this disturbing Swedish thriller. I hope the eventual sequels don’t follow this same queasy, upsetting tone but I also worry that this may be unfortunately part of the books/movies appeal.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an arresting and entertaining thriller that occasionally ducks a little too low into the gutter for my tastes (I’m really taken aback at how rape-heavy it is). The mystery works, though it’s more complicated thanks to an excess of detail and not necessarily a complex narrative. The characters, in particular Lisbeth Salander, are what make this movie work. Lisbeth is a captivating lead character and only promises to get more interesting in those future sequels. In many ways, this is a mystery for grown-ups, not just in content but also in approach, with the relaxed pace, subtlety, and moral ambiguity. Having never read the books, I can now see what all the fuss is about, and most of it is warranted. Still, I’m holding out my final judgment until those other two editions of the Adventures of Lisbeth and Crew hit theaters. The movie adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an exciting opening entry into the world of Lisbeth Salander, international woman of extreme ass kicking in fine fashion to boot.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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