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Movie review: ‘Girl Who Played With Fire’ labors under middle-child syndrome

Dennis King Published: August 18, 2010
Noomi Rapace
Noomi Rapace

Fueled by copious jolts of strong coffee and propelled by the chilly – and chilling – Nordic sensibility of its late creator Stieg Larsson, “The Girl Who Played With Fire” delivers an appropriately pulpy if not wholly fulfilling second cinematic chapter in the author’s hugely popular Millennium trilogy.

Not as grippingly seductive or fully creepy as Niels Arden Oplev’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” veteran Swedish TV director Daniel Alfredson’s version of the second book suffers slightly from a middle-child syndrome. It’s not as surprising or startlingly fresh as the first film, yet it leaves us anticipating an exhilarating climax in the third (“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest,” due up next in American markets).

“The Girl Who Played With Fire” (in Swedish with subtitles) picks up a year after the first film, when Lisbeth Salander (the perfectly cast Noomi Rapace) returns to Stockholm after a year underground. In a tight series of events, this fierce, freaky brainiac with genius hacker skills and zero social graces finds herself implicated in three brutal murders (seems they found her fingerprints on the gun).

So, in essence, the story concerns efforts by her old friend, knight-errant journalist Mikael Blomkvist (appealingly world-weary Michael Nyqvist), to exonerate Lisbeth and in the process uncover a tangled web of sex trafficking and decades-old conspiracy that taps into Lisbeth’s dark, inflammatory history of violence and sexual abuse.

A great deal of the appeal in Larsson’s moody crime writing is in hanging out with this odd pair of crime solvers (his anti Nick and Nora Charles, if you will) – Mikael oblique, noble, virile and bemused; Lisbeth all sharp edges, explosive rage and raw pain.

But unfortunately the two spend little time in each other’s company as this tangled tale unspools and as an exaggerated raft of evil villains strive to impede their progress, and worse.

Certainly Alfredson and screenwriter Jonas Frykberg (who also adapted the trilogy’s third book for Swedish film) do an able job of paring down big blocks of exposition and subplot from the book while still holding on to the essential mystery and icy atmospherics – the endless espressos, the Ikea furnishings – that lend Larsson’s work its distinctive Scandinavian noir style.

At heart, “The Girl Who Played With Fire” feels like a good, polished police procedural of the BBC or “Masterpiece Mystery” ilk (think “Prime Suspect” or better still the “Wallander” mysteries, based on the novels of another best-selling Swedish author, Henning Mankell). It’s more than good enough to satisfy fans of Larsson’s flinty prose and to leave audiences poised for yet another prickly waltz with Lisbeth and Mikael through Stockholm’s bleak, wintry backstreets.

Note: The web keeps buzzing about David Fincher’s English-language adaptation of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” in pre-production for a 2011 release, and it has been announced that Daniel Craig is set to play the role of journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Wild speculation abounds as to who will be cast in the coveted role of Lisbeth Salander, but given the spiky, indelible performance by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish films, whatever ambitious actress lands the role will have some very big combat boots to fill.

- Dennis King

“The Girl Who Played With Fire”

3 stars
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre, Peter Andersson, Annika Hallin
(Brutal violence including a rape, some strong sexual content, nudity and language)