In adapting Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy for the big screen, The Girl Who Played With Fire clearly suffers from middle-child syndrome. Lacking the assertive inventions of its predecessor or the breathless energy of its sibling sequel, this second chapter ratchets down the mystery to parcel out the unsavory details of Lisabeth Salander's past — while letting her kick a little more ass.
Picking up a year after the last film, Lisbeth returns from her globetrotting vacation to discover that she's wanted for a trio of murders she didn't commit. Former lover and valiant journalist Mikael, of course, believes she's innocent, and he spends most of the movie tracking down the suspects and evidence that will exonerate her. In fact, he neglects his investigations into a sex-trafficking cover-up that may reach into the upper branches of government. Or are the two connected? (Don't count on an answer until November when the third chapter hits art-house screens.) Meanwhile, the Swedish authorities are plenty convinced that Lisbeth is the culprit. Fingerprints and an extended stint in the looney bin tend to make you a prime suspect.
Larrson continues his muckraking themes of male corruption and misogyny while giving his bisexual, goth, computer-hacker heroine opportunities to bring the pain to those who most deserve it. But despite the nobility of his causes, his novels can generously be called thinking man's pulp, enlivened by a fierce but damaged protagonist who is constantly underestimated by her foes. What made the concept work the first time was the awkward working relationship between dogged but decent Mikael and brilliant but bitter Lisbeth. Here, unfortunately, the two don't meet up until the film's final scene.
And unlike The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this installment lacks cinematic panache. Though Niels Arden Oplev's direction unabashedly indulged in revenge-fantasy sensationalism, it had a sordid elegance and meaty central mystery to pull you in. Fire, on the other hand, plays very much like the television miniseries it was created to be. Director Daniel Alfredson keeps up a sprightly pace — the film is never boring, but everything feels small-scale and workmanlike — including the story. Dramatic threads go nowhere or are left unresolved, and Lisbeth's backstory is doled out in soap opera fashion, where reality-straining coincidences and surprise revelations connect everyone with everyone else.
There are a few suspenseful sequences and the characters do deepen, but the movie mostly plays like an episode from one of the BBC's better crime series (i.e. Prime Suspect, Touching Evil, Cracker). There's simply no getting around the fact the overarching story lacks nuance or discovery, and the core investigation is on-the-nose simple.
Luckily, chain-smoking Noomi Rapace keeps Lisbeth both compelling and unpredictable. She so fearlessly digs into her character's darkness, drive and vulnerability that it blunts the movie's more melodramatic affectations. The rest of the cast does a good job too, with Michael Nyqvist selling Mikael's endless crusade against injustice and Mikael Spreitz playing the hulking Ronald Niedermann, a cross between Robert Shaw's villainous Grant in From Russia With Love and James Bond's silent but steel-mouthed adversary Jaws.
For fans of the books (and there are untold millions), The Girl Who Played With Fire delivers enough mood, character and action to hold them over for the big finale. For the rest of us, it's Lisbeth who compels us to return, if only to see how the whole lurid thing shakes out.
Opens Friday, July 9, at Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.