The second of the Swedish films adapted from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is no match for the first, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” which wasn’t nearly as edgy and unusual as many claimed, but certainly wasn’t as conventional and sluggish as this film, directed without distinction by Daniel Alfredson. Trilogies usually sag in the middle, and that’s certainly the case here.
A major weakness with “The Girl Who Played With Fire” is that the girl in question, punk heroine Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), is largely absent for much of the picture. She was the main attraction in the first installment, but this time around she’s mostly a bystander until the final reel. That’s because the plot centers on her being framed for several murders—of a young reporter (Hans Christian Thulin) and his girlfriend, as well as Lisbeth’s sleazy legal guardian (Peter Andersson). As a result she goes into hiding, and we see her only occasionally as she keeps up with the progress of the girlhunt and uses her computer hacking skills to track down the person responsible for the frame.
That leaves most of the work of ferreting out the truth and exonerating her to Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the journalist she was reluctantly paired with last time around, for whom the dead reporter was working on an expose regarding a sex-trafficking ring in which important people are implicated. He also involves a boxer and the lady of the evening who’s a friend of Lisbeth’s, and they have a run-in with a big, brawny villain (Micke Spreitz) who turns out to be the link to the ultimate bad-guy.
As in the previous installment, Larsson’s plot is convoluted but in the final analysis fairly ordinary, and the ultimate revelation based on a coincidence that really strains credulity. And it concludes, as “Dragon Tattoo” did, with one of the principals captured and facing gruesome death at the hands of the villain. On the other hand, it does offer the background information on Lisbeth that’s one of the major desiderata of the series. As it turns out “Star Wars” isn’t the only trilogy with a Darth Vader figure in it. (In fact, the similarities are so striking that one might think a homage was intended.)
The cast do the best they can with material that frankly seems second-rate. Rapace is underused, but comes into her own in the final reels, and though she doesn’t exude quite the level of charisma she did in the last film, she’s still easily the strongest element here. Nyqvist is, once again, rather bland. Spreitz seems to have wandered in from a sixties Lew Grade international thriller, but Andersson again exudes sleaziness. Then there’s Georgi Staykov, who plays a kingpin in the sex trafficking business as though he were in a sixties flick, too.
“The Girl Who Played With Fire” was made for television (more specifically, it’s a trimmed version of a two-part mini-series), and technically it’s nondescript, with cinematography by Peter Mokrosinski that’s basically utilitarian and editing by Matthias Morheden that too often goes slack, especially in the final reels.
The Millennium trilogy has attracted a wide international following, but it seems unlikely that this rather flaccid mystery will attract many viewers beyond the books’ existing fan base. One hopes that the final installment will be better.