In their first cinematic go-round, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, intrepid journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) didn’t actually meet until about halfway through the film. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, they don’t come face-to-face until the movie’s almost over. They “see” each other twice before then: Lisbeth watches Mikael enter her home via remote camera, and Mikael watches an incriminating disc of Lisbeth being raped by her “guardian” in the previous film. Both show Lisbeth being violated — her privacy, her body.
Grim as a funeral on a rainy Monday, The Girl Who Played with Fire finds Lisbeth wanted for three murders she didn’t commit. Mikael believes she’s innocent, and spends the movie tracking down suspects. The system, of course, is ready to throw away the key on Lisbeth — she has a checkered psychiatric history, and her bed partners include women as well as men. The late Stieg Larsson, who wrote the bestsellers these movies are drawn from, wanted to indict Swedish society’s misogyny and homophobia. In Lisbeth he found the perfect afflicted heroine, too fierce to be a mere victim but too damaged to stay out of trouble.
Lisbeth passes much of the movie in hiding, staying at an unregistered apartment and tapping away on her laptop. Mikael makes a lot of phone calls. Despite that — and its stately pace — the movie is not boring. There’s a nicely erotic encounter between Lisbeth and an old flame (Yasmine Garbi), and a crisply staged fight between a boxer and a big white-haired bruiser that packs more excitement and tension than most of the summer blockbusters have to offer. At their heart, though — and this feels more pronounced here than in Dragon Tattoo — these movies are high-flown pulp; this one comes complete with revelations about Lisbeth’s family that feel imported from soap opera, where everyone seems connected not entirely plausibly. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t being shocked with a Taser disable someone even if they can’t feel pain?
Ah, well. Dragon Tattoo was so good (and the next one, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is said to return to those heights) that disappointment in its sequel is probably inevitable. Partly, as noted above, it’s because the movie is missing the first film’s chief source of charm — the uneasy rapport between the decent Mikael and the spiky Lisbeth. Both actors keep their halves of the film afloat — Noomi Rapace scores again with her tough-vulnerable portrait of Lisbeth — but the movie works less as a cracking mystery than as a screed against scummy men, and an excuse to rub Lisbeth’s face in more dirt. If you share my fondness for the characters, that affection may pull you through this glumly compelling but unpleasant film. You may wish for more scenes like the tender meeting between Lisbeth and her ailing old former legal protector; the snarly young woman gently feeds the old man and even smiles at him. You may want a movie that gives this heroine — and this actress — more reasons to smile and fewer reasons not to.