Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review: "The Girl Who Played with Fire"

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was a vibrant, mesmerizing Swedish thriller about a brilliant and damaged woman who hit back at the men who had tormented her. The sequel is gawky and forced, a rambling narrative that is more interested in perpetuating the tale of Lisbeth Salander for its own sake rather than because it has a compelling story to tell.

"The Girl Who Played with Fire" -- the second in a cinematic trilogy based on the late Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" novels -- does gather itself together for a smashing finale that, if predictable, still packs plenty of visceral punch.

Director Daniel Alfredson and screenwriter Jonas Frykberg take over from, respectively, Niels Arden Oplev and the team of Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. Why the filmmaker switcheroo I cannot guess -- only observe that the change was not for the better.

"Fire" picks up one year after the events of "Dragon." Having assisted investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist in uncovering a morass of secrets belonging to a rich family, Lisbeth has absconded with an embezzled fortune to find some measure of peace on a sunny beach.

With a long criminal history and incarceration in a mental institution, she eschews emotional relationships, but left a chink in her armor big enough for Mikael to slip through.

Lisbeth returns to Stockholm when she hacks the computer of her probation officer, Bjurman (Peter Andersson), to see what he's up to. After being violently raped by Bjurman in the last film, Lisbeth exacted a horrifying revenge that included his coerced agreement to falsify glowing monthly reports about her.

(Why she needs this, when she's successfully disappeared off the grid with her millions, is never made clear.)

Meanwhile, Mikael and his magazine staff are preparing an explosive expose about men in positions of power trafficking in sex slaves. Soon, the young journalist writing the piece and his girlfriend are shot execution-style. When Bjurman also turns up dead, Lisbeth becomes the prime suspect.

The trail leads to a mysterious figure known only as Zala, who somehow is tied in with Lisbeth's childhood troubles.

A handful of new characters turn up. There's Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi), an old friend/lover of Lisbeth's who watches over her old apartment. The two share a roll on the hardwood floor that's very steamy, but which also has an obligatory feel to it, as if the filmmakers felt the movie needed to have a sex scene, and figured making it a lesbian one would amp up the heat.

(Hollywood is frantically working on a much-anticipated -- and totally unnecessary -- American remake of "Dragon Tattoo," which I'm sure will dramatically tone down the frank European approach to nudity.)

There's also a famous professional boxer who somehow gets entangled in the web, then disappears as quickly as he popped up.

The most forbidding figure is a blond giant (Micke Spreitz) who seems impervious to pain, and badly wants Lisbeth in his fearsome clutches.

The story arc wobbles all over the place. As in the last movie, Mikael and Lisbeth spend most of the film apart, pursuing the mystery from different angles.

At some point the investigation into the sex scandal fades from attention, and the inquiry turns to Lisbeth's dark past. It's a strange shift, especially since people have died to bring this story to light, and yet we never even know if it was published.

Noomi Rapace still has a hefty, steely presence as Lisbeth, though she seems strangely unfocused. It's as if Lisbeth is continuing to burrow into computer networks and turn up secrets because that's all she knows how to do, not out of any burning need for vengeance.

As far as I can tell, the entire plot machinery of murders, investigations, etc. is set off only when Lisbeth leaves her Caribbean hideaway to return to Sweden for reasons that remain murky at best. For a girl who plays with fire, this disappointing sequel doesn't generate any.

2 stars out of four

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