Daniel Alfredson, 2009
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre, Georgi Staykov
Based on the second novel in Stieg Larsson's Millennium series, the film necessarily cuts out lengthy sections of the book, namely the early chapters featuring Lisbeth Salander's time abroad. When Salander returns to Sweden, she is suspected of murdering a pair of journalists who were investigating a sex-trade ring, as well as her abusive guardian, Nils Bjurman. In the previous film he raped and tortured Salander and she blackmailed him for her freedom. Journalist and one-time partner of Salander, Mikael Blomkvist is convinced of her innocence and is determined to get to the bottom of the murders and exonerate Salander. All signs point to a mysterious figure named Zala.
There are certain interesting elements about Flickan som lekte med elden aka The Girl who Played with Fire, but it ultimately falls short. The subtext about the sex trade and human trafficking could add depth to the film, but is little more than a passing set piece, establishing motive for Salander's rage. These books/films are essentially a lengthy hate letter to sexual abuse, objectification, and, as Larssen put it with the real title of the first book, men who hate women. They make a decent attempt, but ultimately fail because the villains are not regular men, they are farcical, Bond-like extremes: serial killers, Nazis, corrupt billionaires, and Russian gangsters.
Somewhat surprisingly, The Girl who Plays with Fire places less of an emphasis on Salander, who barely appears in the first half of the film. She is no longer the invincible, black-clad anti-heroine of the first film. Where in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Salander does the seemingly impossible in terms of computer research, in this film she has to wander around in the dark, safely locked up in her apartment or scuttling down the street in disguise. In Dragon Tattoo she cracks the Vanger case and saves Blomkvist, but here he has to do all the investigating and ultimately saves her -- ultimately a refreshing change.
This also feels more like a revenge film than the previous effort, which was clearly a murder mystery/thriller. SPOILERS: Salander is shot three times and buried alive by Zala, who turns out to be Zalachenko, her long lost father. As a teenager she set Zalachenko on fire to get revenge for his constant abuse of her mother. Both women were hospitalized and institutionalized as a result. The film brings up similarities between Salander and Zalachenko and their familial connection gives an added depth to her rage. She finally appears vulnerable and, by the end of the film, does become more sympathetic. There is also a growing closeness between Salander and Blomkvist, despite the fact that they share almost no screen time. Blomkvist, surprisingly, is more likable and provides a grounding force in this film. Though he was boring, plodding, and reluctant in Dragon Tattoo, here his faith in Salander and passionate drive to prove her innocence gives him more of an emotional spark than expected.
The worst part of the film are the two villains, Zala and his son/henchman Niedermann. They feel like Bond villains, which is grossly out of place in the Millenium world. Niedermann is a hulking blonde German who has a genetic disorder that makes him incapable of feeling pain. Zala is a Russian criminal mastermind who is badly scarred from when the teenage Salander set him on fire, but still manages to run an international crime ring, get involved in sex trafficking, drugs, blackmail, murder, extortion, etc. The mystery surrounding Zala also pales in comparison to the Vanger case in Dragon Tattoo.
The successful elements make me wish it was a better film and I'm reluctant to finish the trilogy, which is less a trilogy and more a separate first feature and a lengthy two-part second film. I wish these films weren't so serious and put more emphasis on the pulp elements, because, let's face, this is generously treading the line of grindhouse cinema.
If you want to check out The Girl who Played with Fire, it is streaming on Netflix and there's a DVD from Music Box Entertainment. I can't recommend the film, but if you're invested in the series it is worth watching.