Maybe it’s the fact that Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo trilogy is foreign, and therefore feels smarter, or the fact that Larsson passed away before the publication of his novels, adding a note of gravity to the series, but whatever it is, the trilogy feels more intellectual than the Dan Brown Da Vinci code books, even if both series offer the same light, escapist entertainment disguised by the darker subject material as something more sophisticated. On the surface, there’s not a lot separating the two series — they’re unnecessarily densely plotted whodunnits filled with MacGuffins that tend to lead toward predictable, pat endings. But Dragon Tattoo has something that Da Vinci does not (besides considerably better writing, of course): Richly drawn and engrossing lead characters. While the translation from book to screen hasn’t been a complete success with the Swedish movies — the dense plotting has been streamlined and simplified — the character transitions have been. David Fincher may, ultimately, make better movies out of the series — he is David Fincher, after all — but he’s going to have a very difficult time finding actors capable of better depicting Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander than do Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, respectively. Rapace is especially brilliant in the role — she’s a quiet, brooding character, but Rapace conveys a remarkable amount of emotional character development without saying a word.
The second movie in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire, is a step down from the first — a significant one — but both the lead characters, and the actors who portray them, manage to make watching the film a worthwhile experience, even once the story itself — bogged down in too many coincidences — begins to lack.
The Girl Who Played With Fire picks up a year after the events of Dragon Tattoo concluded. Lisbeth has returned to Sweden after a year of traveling only to find that she’s been accused of the murder of three people, killed with her guardian’s handgun, which had Lisbeth’s fingerprints on it. This, because Lisbeth threatened her guardian with the pistol after he failed to keep proper records as she had blackmailed him to do in the first movie after he’d raped her.
Soon, Lisbeth finds herself in the middle of a sex-trafficking scandal, one which was initially uncovered by two young researchers working for Blomkvist’s Millennium magazine, a scandal that would expose many of those high in the government of engaging in violent sex with prostitutes. Lisbeth goes on the run, while Blomkvist attempts to clear her name, an investigation that leads them toward a ridiculous, if not somewhat predictable, villain.
The Girl Who Played With Fire is missing much of the backstory that made Dragon Tattoo as engaging as it was, in addition to the gripping but awkward chemistry between Blomkvist and Lisbeth that developed over the course of the first film. The two only share one scene in the second film, while Blomkvist continues his affair with the publisher of Millennium , which was only hinted at in the first film (though more thoroughly explored in the novels). Part of the problem with The Girl Who Played With Fire is that the mystery is not all that compelling, and the other problem is Larsson’s need to continue using the same characters from Lisbeth’s back story. The resulting story feels strained, as he attempts to fit those seemingly self-contained characters into a broader conspiracy.
Moreover, The Girl Who Played With Fire feels very much like the second in a trilogy — a mediocre bridge between two superior efforts (or, at least I hope Hornet’s Nest is superior). It’s a lethargic film punctuated by a few noteworthy developments, developments that feel like a set up for the final movie. I’m also a little annoyed at how both movies end in a way that seems to undermine what is an otherwise powerful feminist character. She continues to be a strong, ass-kicking misandrist, but — minor spoiler — Larsson still insists that, in the end, she has to be rescued by a man, in both cases Blomkvist.
Nevertheless, The Girl Who Played With Fire is a decent effort, and for fans of Larrson’s trilogy, it’s a necessary viewing experience, if only to sate your thirst until Hornet’s Nest arrives stateside. Director Daniel Alfredson, replacing Niels Arden Oplev from the original installment, does a solid job of maintaining the dark tone and the brooding atmospherics; the intensity of the first movie, however, is missing. Overall, it’s not a particularly satisfying movie, but it’s not damaging, either, and it certainly won’t dissuade me from watching the final movie in the trilogy.