August 05, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Murderer's Row, indeed

Grade: B

Director: Daniel Alfredson

Starring: Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 2 hours, 9 minutes

Those who dismiss the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium trilogy” as exploitative, derivative flotsam speak to the reason why the in-the-works American remake of Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is doomed for disappointment.

Yes, Larsson was a fan of English and American crime fiction, but the true driving influence behind his novels was an indigenous commentary on Swedish society, something bound to get lost in translation on its way to Hollywood.

Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the goth-inspired, post-modern Pippi Longstocking at the heart of Larsson’s series, is a flashpoint for the fear and anxiety generated by northern Europe’s archaic ideological past and its techno-capitalist future. Moreover, she embodies the inconsistent regard for women in contemporary Sweden, a country that ranks high in the number of women holding public office, graduating from college, and comprising the work force. Yet rape and domestic violence are so pervasive there Amnesty International issued a report on the subject last year.

Lisbeth opens the sequel The Girl Who Played With Fire in exile at her Caribbean hideaway, flush with millions of dollars she fleeced from disgraced industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstr√∂m’s offshore bank account at the conclusion of Dragon Tattoo. Still, she longs for home and her precious few friends, including Holmer Palmegren (Per Oscarsson), her former guardian, and Miriam (Yasmine Garbi), her erstwhile lover.

Unfortunately, no sooner does Lisbeth step foot back in Stockholm than she finds herself framed for the gangland slaying of reporter Dag Svensson and his girlfriend, Mia, along with the execution-style murder of Nils Bjurman, Lisbeth’s probationary guardian, who stills bears the scarlet lettering she carved into his abdomen after he brutally raped her in Dragon Tattoo.

Dag was completing an expose on prostitution and human trafficking for Millennium magazine, home to middle-aged investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the other half of Larsson’s protagonist duo. With the manhunt for Lisbeth in full throes, Blomkvist begins a parallel search for the real killers, a trail that will eventually cross a boxing trainer, a notorious Russian gangster, and his robotic henchman.

Some lingering questions from the first film are answered, such as the reason why Lisbeth’s mother resides in an assisted living facility and the target in young Lisbeth’s firebug flashbacks. Indeed, The Girl Who Played With Fire is hardly a sturdy standalone; a working knowledge of the events in Dragon Tattoo is required to follow the plot and appreciate its nuances. Yet, that respect for the audience’s intelligence is one of the highpoints of both this film and its forbearer.

Take, for example, the affair between Blomkvist and his editor, Erika Berger (Lena Endre). No blathering about how it will impact the workplace (or Erika’s marriage); no fretting about how Blomkvist hasn’t gotten over his sexual relationship with Lisbeth. There’s just a scene of Blomkvist and Erika waking up in bed together. The script leaves it to the viewer to fill-in the narrative blanks.

Director Daniel Alfredson, assuming the reigns from Niels Arden Oplev, produces a streamlined, but no less visually stimulating effort. Working from Larsson’s source, writer Jonas Frykberg litters the screenplay with genre homages: e.g., before her death, Mia was penning thesis on Russian gangs titled From Russia With Love, and the villainous goon tracking Lisbeth is a hulking, blond baddie impervious to pain, √† la the SPECTRE assassin Robert Shaw plays in the James Bond classic.

Not unlike Eastwood’s Man With No Name, the storyline still affords plenty of opportunities for Lisbeth to roam the countryside asphyxiating information out of perverts and Tasering male attackers below the belt, although none of it the prurient depths in Dragon Tattoo. But, the series’ forte remains Rapace and Nyqvist’s performances and the believable affinity they build between Lisbeth and Blomkvist, a kinship that is unusual in that it evolves from sexual to sidekicks. Unlike the first film, the two only share a few minutes of screen time in The Girl Who Played With Fire; most of their interaction takes place via surveillance video and instant messaging, itself a commentary on relationships during our digital age. While this separation seems counterproductive to preserving the film’s strongest suit, the way their symbiotic devotion remains intact and even matures from afar actually strengthens their emotional bond.

Plot-wise, The Girl Who Played With Fire is little more than a high-gloss, sometimes tawdry potboiler. It is the packaging, acting, and symbolism that transform this popular page-turner into a stout serial.

Neil Morris

*Originally published at

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