Earlier this year, a very limited group of American audiences had the opportunity to see the U.K.’s supremely powerful Red Riding Trilogy, and roughly a month later Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo slipped into art houses. Now, heading into the heart of Summer, we are given the second chapter in Larsson’s abrupt trilogy (the author died in 2004 before he could complete what was to be an alleged ten-book series), The Girl Who Played with Fire. There is something to be said for this one-and-two-thirds trilogies being shown in the same year (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest won’t appear in U.S. theaters until early 2011), with their similarly dark and ugly injustices played out under the watchful gaze of corrupt authorities and cold-hearted powerbrokers. Red Riding‘s stories spread across a ten year span, and cover a wide range of characters, some of whom don’t survive single chapters of the trilogy. The films of Larsson’s tale focus primarily on two people: Millennium Magazine’s showcase journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the victim of some horrific tragedies and the instigator of Blomkvist’s investigation into others. With Dragon Tattoo arriving on DVD the same week as Fire‘s theatrical release, there’s really no reason not to be completely caught up on the complexities of Larsson’s story, which is enthralling, but murky and unpleasant enough to be a tad strong for all tastes. Like Red Riding, the Girl series is terrific stuff, but not everyone is going to want to endure it. The Larsson adaptations, at least, have a vaguely mainstream feel to them that makes their non-abusive sections seem downright Old Hollywood by comparison.
The new film, directed by Daniel Alfredson (who also directed Hornet’s Nest), has a more hurried sensibility, and is filled with some traditional, action-packed thriller moments (there is a frantic car chase, a few fight scenes and gunfights, and one building is burned to the ground), but the story is once again all about unfortunate history and family secrets.
Lisbeth has spent the year or so since Dragon Tattoo‘s story ended travelling the world, living in spacious villas that overlook gorgeous scenery, while handling her affairs through very officious bankers and real estate agents. But it becomes clear she hasn’t been getting her copies of vengefully-tattooed social worker Nils Bjurman’s (Peter Andersson) monthly competence reports. In threatening him to stay on track or risk being outed as a “sadist pig/rapist”, she sets herself up as the patsy for a triple murder, and thus begins the new film’s mystery.
Millennium Magazine’s editorial staff are considering an in-depth story on human trafficking brought in by young reporter Dag (Hans-Christian Thulin), whose girlfriend has just finished a thesis on the subject. Powerful men stand to be hurt by this information, so it doesn’t take long for several cover-up killings to take place, putting Lisbeth in hiding and Mikael on the path of a mysterious criminal no one wants to talk about named Zala. To say much more would spoil some twisty, uncomfortable developments for our protagonists.
Noomi Rapace again plays Lisbeth as almost wordless, her actions formed from memories and nightmares that would slow anyone else’s pace. Determined and unafraid, Lisbeth burns for vengeance, moving about with edgy, driven purpose. It’s a great character, though she’s hardly given a moment to reflect in the new film. Unlike the quieter moments with Mikael in Tattoo, Fire only allows Lisbeth a brief fling with an old girlfriend.
Yet Miriam Wu (the lovely Yasmine Garbi) is another example of how Larsson seemed to make his heroines tough as nails: Miriam is not only sexy as hell but a kick-boxer who does a good job of defending herself. If only she wasn’t squared off against Ronald Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz), a hulking, blonde thug who appears to be impervious to pain, and tied to every unpleasant occurrence in the film. Even Lisbeth’s boxing trainer Paolo (Paolo Roberto) can’t best the massive fellow, leaving him and Miriam in a dangerous spot that provides one of the film’s more thrilling scenes.
Fire does suffer from a slight touch of Middle Syndrome; Tattoo, even if you knew there was a part two, felt like a neatly self-contained story. It’s primary mystery was resolved and lead characters seemed resigned to their choices in the end. But Fire feels more like an unfinished story, starting with details that knowledge of Tattoo requires and ending with an incident that leaves you questioning what will happen to a main character. It’s not a cliffhanger, per se, but it does leave you wondering. That the film seems slightly less powerful than its predecessor should not be taken as a sign it is of lesser quality. These films out-do the majority of American films (especially this year) simply by nature of their unwillingness to take a soft-touch or overtly stylish approach to such harsh material.