A film review by Craig J. Koban November 3, 2010


2010, R, 129 mins.


Lisbeth Salander: Noomi Rapace / Mikael Blomkvist: Michael Nyqvist / Erika Berger: Lena Endre / Nils Bjurman: Peter Andersson / Zalachenko: Georgi Staykov

Directed by Daniel Alfredson / Written by Jonas Frykberg, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson


In Swedish, Italian and French with English subtitles

She has a sultry dragon tattoo and has most definitely played with fire – albeit in the most grisly and macabre manner possible.  She’s bisexual, has multiple face and ear piercings, is a genius at investigative journalism and computer hacking, and has street wise toughness, a stone cold and piercing stare, and a yearning for vigilante justice that would make Clint Eastwood blush with envy.  Above all of that, she certainly deserves ranking as one of the most memorable and intriguing female protagonists in recent film history.  Few roles for actresses as of late have offered such a tantalizingly complex and psychologically nuanced character, but that’s precisely what THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and its sequel, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE offers to filmgoers.  The title role is an astonishingly realized cinematic original. 

Of course, I am referring to Lisbeth Salandar, a character that was created by late Swedish novelist and activist Stieg Larsson and was the focal point of his posthumously published “Millennium Trilogy” of books (the third of which, THE GIRL THAT KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST, is currently in limited release across North America).  His books have become international best sellers and the stories contained within have thrilled literary fans and now cinephiles.   The first film that came out this year featured a virtuoso murder mystery narrative, but I think that the real allure of if and THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE is the haunting and beguiling presence of Lisbeth herself, who once again emerges as compulsively engaging as ever. 

Noomi Rapace is a very beautiful woman (especially from what I’ve seen in interviews on Blu-Ray bonus features and on foreign language TV); it’s utterly astonishing what a completely transformative and intense performance she gives as Lisbeth in these two films.   Rarely can I use the descriptor “becomes” when referring to an actress realizing her onscreen persona, but no other one really fits.  Rapace just becomes this tragically tormented and wounded role, and she displays a rawness, toughness, and breathless determination that has not been seen in a female character on screen for a long time (Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from the ALIEN films comes to mind).  Thinking of David Fincher’s forthcoming Americanized remake of these Swed imports, I can’t possible fathom anyone else playing this role as evocatively as Rapace.  No offence to Rooney Mara (the New York actress set to play Lisbeth in Fincher’s version), you were deceptively good in the opening scene of THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but I sincerely doubt that you’ll touch what Rapace has accomplished here.  

Now…as for THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE (Swedish: Flickan som lekte med elden) itself?  The film features most of the same players from the initial entry, but the directorial choirs have changed hands from Niels Arden Oplev to Daniel Alfredson (not the captain of the NHL's Ottawa Senators) who continued Oplev’s plan to film the entire trilogy back-to-back-to-back.  This new film has the solid pacing, sure footed plotting, and powerfully realized performances of the first film, not to mention that there is a central mystery at the heart of it that needs to be solved by the heroes.  This second entry is feverously gripping, although the mystery contained within does not hold up as well as the one in the first film and feels a bit more conventional and rigidly straightforward.  Yet, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE does what great sequels should:  it uses familiar characters and themes from the first film and then takes them in decidedly new and unfamiliar directions.  For those reasons, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE is a rousing success.

The first film, you may recall, focused on the efforts of a blackballed political journalist Mikael Blomkvist (the superbly underrated Michael Nyqvist, who’s solidly understated performance is often not appreciated in the shadow of Rapace’s superlative work) that tried to clear himself of libel while looking for the culprits behind a murder in a prominent Swedish family.  He was assisted by the very unconventional Lisbeth, and the first film was enthralling for the character dynamics: he was an old school investigative journalist whereas Lisbeth represented New Age methods of cyberspace research.  They also engaged in a highly unconventional romance, unconventional because both are complete polar opposites and because of Lisbeth’s preference, it seems, is for same sex partners. 

If there were a central weakness this time around then it would certainly be that, throughout most of the film, Lisbeth and Mikael almost never share screen time, which erodes much of the flavor and intrigue of the initial film.  No matter, because the requirements of this narrative demand that they are apart.  The film picks up one year after the first film after Lisbeth has successfully assisted Mikael with exposing the culprits of a viscous murder mystery.  After spending the year abroad Lisbeth has returned to Sweden, but her arrival is punctuated by tragedy as she is very quickly accused of committing the multiple homicides of two Millennium Magazine reporters (that are doing a story of sex trafficking) and parole Officer Nels Bjurman (Peter Andersson), who treated Lisbeth with such an indescribably cruelty in the first film that his homicide could easily be linked to her by motive alone.   

Of course, Mikael can’t bring himself to believe that Lisbeth would murder his staff writers (her parole officer…maybe…but not his writers) so he immediately begins to make contact with her, but with no success.  He thusly begins an investigation into the matter, which occurs simultaneously with Lisbeth’s own search for the real killer, and both of their leads points to an enigmatic underworld crime lord known as “Zala” (Georgi Staykov), who has a connection to Lisbeth’s past.  All of this comes to a head during an ill-fated conclusion, which threatens the life of Lisbeth and her ability to bring the murderous culprit to justice. 

On thing truly stands out here as it did in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and that is the repellent sleaziness of the antagonists.  Bjurman’s parole officer – whose indecent acts against Lisbeth are recounted here – is pure evil incarnate and definitely deserves his fate, and the new baddie of the film, Staykov’s “Zala”, is equally malicious and despicable towards Lisbeth in ways that can best be described as Freudian.  Zala even has an obligatory giant, hulking henchmen that seems plucked from a James Bond adventure (Mikael Spreitz), who’s a blond Adonis that cannot feel pain because of a specific medical condition.  One thing is for sure: THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE dives head first into its misogynistic themes of man’s hatred towards women, which only further manifests itself positively with the way Lisbeth – with a fiery and rancorous temperament – shows no fear in attacking men back without any remorse.  This is what ultimately makes her such an eccentrically likeable character deserving of our rooting interest. 

The film is filled with all sorts of salacious elements as well:  We get blood spattering fist fights; multiple chases; threats made by chain saws, axes, and gunpoint; people being brutalized and buried alive; kinky blackmail sex DVDs; mysterious police reports; the standard double crosses and startling revelations; and a revisit of an act perpetrated by Lisbeth against her father that is anything but loving.  Again, not all of it works as successfully or as refreshingly as it did in the first film, but THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE is still an exemplary made crime thriller and the final act - when Lisbeth is forced to deal with one brutal truth - is, at the risk of using a cliché, a real nail-biter. 

The rich and commanding performances and Alfredson’s slickly assured direction fundamentally makes up for the film’s narrative shortcomings.  These Swed films also, it should be noted, have a daring sense of reckless abandon with their inherent luridness that will most likely be lost in the Hollywoodized versions, which will most assuredly be toned down to get a necessary R-rating for mass consumption.  Beyond that, Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander, more than ever, emerges here with an unrivalled, transcending performance that will be next-to-impossible to duplicate.  This heroine - deeply traumatized by her childhood upbringing, abused later on as an adult, rejected by society, befriend by an unlikely ally, and ultimately picking up all of these fractured pieces of her life to carry on and courageously persevere - is still a marvelous movie creation: you are forever drawn to this character, hence, to the stories she populates as well.  



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