Swedish sequel is mysteriously unfulfilling
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 9, 2010
All too often, the second movie of a trilogy is a bridge. ("The Matrix Reloaded," anyone?) As often as not, it feels more like the first half of the last movie than a film in its own right.
"The Girl Who Played With Fire" is no exception.
The sequel to the nearly flawless "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (see DVD review, Page 35) -- the first in a series of three films based on the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson's best-selling mysteries -- is good but not great. Where "Tattoo" was gripping, "Fire" is merely attention-grabbing. It's just as violent and darkly creepy as the first film, but the richly satisfying payoff isn't there. As a teaser for the third and final course in this three-course meal, it's fine. When "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" finally hits theaters, every one of the movie's fans will be there. But for now, no one will walk away from this table feeling fully fed.
That's not to say there aren't some real pleasures in "Fire." In it, we learn a bit more about Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the fascinating computer hacker and titular avenging angel introduced in the first film. Sure, she's still kind of unknowable. That's part of her tough-yet-vulnerable mystique. Yet "Fire" manages to peel back a layer or two of her onion, revealing more of the old hurts that drive her.
When the second movie begins, she's still underground. Having used her high-tech skills in that earlier story to help her sometime lover, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), solve an old murder, she has now fled Sweden -- after taking time out from that mystery to exact revenge on her sadistic parole officer, Bjurman (Peter Andersson). Yes, Lisbeth has a troubled past. It's what makes her so interesting.
Lisbeth returns to Sweden only to find that she has been implicated in a triple homicide -- including the murder of Bjurman. (The other victims are a journalist and his girlfriend, both of whom were working with Mikael on an exposé of a sex-trafficking ring.) This pulls Lisbeth back into Michael's orbit. But for much of the film, the two characters remain apart, communicating only via e-mail while Mikael tries to clear Lisbeth's name, and while Lisbeth tries to stay one step ahead of the law (and a vicious gangster named Zala).
It's a frustrating separation, mainly because the relationship between Mikael and Lisbeth was what made "Tattoo" tick. On paper, these two are a total mismatch: He's a paunchy, middle-aged writer; she's a pierced and tattooed cyberpunk. On film, however, their relationship crackled. You couldn't call it love, exactly. Lisbeth, who's bisexual -- not to mention emotionally damaged -- wouldn't commit to anyone. Still, they made a memorable couple, both as lovers and as detectives. So it disappoints to see them inhabiting the same film but rarely sharing screen time together.
A word of warning: Where "Tattoo" led you, step by step, through the investigation at the center of that film, "Fire" cuts narrative corners. An old man from Lisbeth's past (Per Oscarsson) is introduced, but the movie never tells us exactly what their relationship is nor how Michael suddenly tracks him down. That's a critical piece of the puzzle, and it's left out.
There's a delicious bewilderment to the best mysteries, a balance between what's revealed -- and how quickly -- and what's concealed. In "The Girl Who Played With Fire," the equilibrium is off. Parts of Lisbeth that were previously hidden, even to herself, become clearer. That's what's best about it. But then the story ends, before she -- and we -- have a chance to see her do something with it.
If knowledge is power, then Lisbeth, at the end of this movie, has just been handed a loaded gun. We'll all have to wait for part three to see whether she pulls the trigger.
Contains strong, violent imagery, sex, nudity, obscenity and smoking. In Swedish with English subtitles.