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Monday, July 12, 2010

Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009)

* * 1/2

Director: Daniel Alfredson
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist

Man, I wanted so much to like this movie. I loved the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (even more than the book, in fact) and The Girl Who Played with Fire was my favourite of the books, but I just was not feeling this adaptation. It retains the action from the novel but lacks the thematic ambition of both its source and its predecessor film, resulting in a rather generic action thriller.

Noomi Rapace is back as Lisbeth Salander, anti-social computer hacker and trouble magnet. About a year has passed since the events in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Lisbeth has been enjoying her embezzled money on a beach in the Caribbean, having abruptly disappeared without a word to any of the people in her life. When she returns to Sweden and sets about re-establishing some of her former connections she’s met with disdain by some, knowing amusement by others, and fear by her legal guardian Bjurman (Peter Andersson), whom she visits in the middle of the night to warn him against trying to have that tattoo she gave him in the first story removed. This visit sets off a chain reaction which results in three deaths, a manhunt for Lisbeth, and the re-emergence of Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), a dangerous man from her past.

While Lisbeth is evading capture by the police and hunting down Zalachenko to take care of their unfinished business, her friend and former lover Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) tackles the issue of trying to prove that she's innocent of the three murders. One of the victims was Blomkvist’s colleague who was working with his girlfriend (another of the victims) to expose a large scale sex trafficking ring and the high profile men who took advantage of it. Zalachenko’s name pops up again and again in the investigation materials, leading Blomkvist to believe that he’s set Lisbeth up, a belief which is solidified when he uncovers the link between the two as well as Zalachenko’s ties to the Swedish secret police.

If you’ve been in a book store in the last year or so, you’ve no doubt seen Stieg Larsson’s books and their daunting density (though have no fear: their size is partly due to Larsson’s fixation on the minutiae of his characters’ lives which includes descriptions of Lisbeth’s shopping trips to Ikea and her reliance on a Swedish culinary delicacy known as Billy’s Pan Pizza). The plot as it is set out in the novel is dense but that’s because it examines things from multiple angles, following both Lisbeth and Blomkvist, but also following the police investigation from the inside, exploring the network of assorted bad guys, and using all of these threads to continue the examination of institutionalized misogyny that began in the previous story. One of the weaknesses of the film is that it drops most of the stuff involving the police investigation and entirely abandons the part of the plot dealing with how the press twists the story to sensationalistic extremes in order to vilify Lisbeth. The film presents a very streamlined version of the plot, which isn’t a problem in and of itself (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was streamlined as well), but it’s done rather inelegantly here and much of The Girl Who Played with Fire feels like it’s just setting the stage for what will happen in the next film. I won’t fault the film for its abrupt, non-resolution ending since one scene essentially straddles the second and third book, but I do fault it for the perfunctory way that it goes about establishing story elements and characters that will carry over to the next film and for the way that it seems to de-contextualize the violence. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was extremely violent as well (arguably even more brutally so than this one) but it used that violence as part of its exploration of the relationship of women to society, whereas here it feels more like violence for the sake of violence, events that are isolated rather than woven into the larger picture.

That’s what disappointed me about the film, but there were things that I liked about it as well. Rapace turns in another great performance as Lisbeth, particularly in the scene where Lisbeth and Zalachenko finally come face to face. She’s such an emotionally remote character, never registering much in the way of a change in demeanour, but in that scene she just can’t contain her glee at seeing the lingering effects of the injury she inflicted on him. The way that Rapace and Staykov play off of each other is note perfect and illuminates another side of Lisbeth, helping to more fully develop the character. Of course shortly thereafter things go horribly, horribly wrong for her but her singular determination to definitively settle the score with Zalachenko allows her to literally dig herself out of the situation. She’s a force to be reckoned with and, once again, Rapace is totally up to the task of playing her (and looks pretty cool kicking ass, riding motorcycles, and psychologically terrorizing some bad, bad dudes). I just wish that the film had a little bit more depth.

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