The second part of a trilogy doesn't burn as bright
She's back. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the computer whiz and socially maladjusted woman with the titular back ink from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo returns in The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second installment in late Swedish crime novelist Stieg Larsson's posthumously published Millennium trilogy that has taken over crime fiction (see: The New York Times' June 15 article--and many more--reporting on the so-called Scandinavian crime fiction renaissance) and local audiences (see: Tattoo still playing at the Charles after opening there the first weekend in April). This trilogy has sold more than 35 million copies worldwide, and reviews of Tattoo love to speculate who is going to play arresting goth-punk heroine in the inevitable Hollywood remake.
Fire, though, is a bit listless compared to the well-fashioned and plot-thick Tattoo that introduced these characters onscreen, though this middle child wildly succeeds at doing the only thing it really has to: whet the appetite for the final installment, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Where Lisbeth was a more peripheral player through most of Tattoo, which picked up a considerable head of steam once she and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) partnered up to chase clues into the first movie's central mystery about a missing woman. Fire shoves Lisbeth front and center, as the movie basically offers her backstory, the reason she became the way that she is.
The sexual abuses of male power continue to be the trilogy's main concerns. Fire opens a little more than a year following the end of Tattoo, with Lisbeth hiding out in the Caribbean before surreptitiously returning to Stockholm, where she lives in a secluded, luxury flat while letting Miriam (Yasmine Garbi), Lisbeth's kinda/sorta girlfriend, stay in her old flat. Lisbeth quickly becomes a person of interest to the police, however, when a corrupt lawyer associated with Lisbeth ends up murdered--as do young journalist Dag Svensson and his girlfriend, who were both looking into a sex-trafficking organization in Sweden that involved a number of powerful men and businessmen.
The police identify Lisbeth as the prime murder suspect, but Blomkvist doesn't believe it. And since the journalist's story was going to be published in his Millennium magazine, he starts sorting through the murdered scribe's research and story looking for any reason why Lisbeth would be framed for these acts. His investigation, and Lisbeth's own efforts to find out what's going on, take them on criss-crossing paths through her life, starting with her parents and how Lisbeth ended up in an institution, which eventually takes them individually into a criminal underworld where Swedish special police have housed a former Soviet spy who might be involved with various illegal activities, Lisbeth's former courts guardian, and somebody's ridiculously capable muscle (Micke Spreitz), a walking redwood of a man who appears to be impervious to pain.
What it lacks is Tattoo's accelerating and engrossing narrative drive, which patiently played its plot points and slowly worked up to a dynamic, frenetic final reel. Some of Fire's listlessness is due to the book itself--a trilogy's middle section can often be merely a placeholder--and some of it is due to the filmmaking team. Tattoo was directed by Niels Adren Opley, a veteran of Swedish crime TV series such as Unit 1 and The Eagle, and he successfully translated the genre's beats and rhythms to the big screen. Screenwriter Jonas Frykberg and director Daniel Alfredson--who worked on both Fire and the final Hornet's Nest installment--don't translate the story from page to screen with the same visual brio, even though the storyline contains the same mix of the urban and rural.
What Frykberg and Alfredson do well, though, is finish strong. Fire eventually leads both Blomkvist and Lisbeth to a man who lives in the countryside. They arrive there independently of each other and for different reasons, but by the time a grave is being dug and a handgun is being brandished, they're both hoping for the same thing: just to be alive when the credits role. And that Fire doesn't let you know that for certain makes the wait between now and Nest feel a tad interminable.