Girl Who Played with Fire, The (Sweden/Denmark/Germany, 2009)

July 06, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Girl Who Played with Fire, The Poster

The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second part of Stieg Larsson's enormously popular The Millennium Trilogy, follows The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and precedes The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Filmed back-to-back-to-back, the three movies feature the same actors, although there have been changes to some of the behind-the-scenes crew. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was directed by Niels Arden Oplev from an adapted screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. For The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the directing duties were assumed by Daniel Alfredson from scripts by Jonas Frykberg. The films opened in 2009 in Sweden and late 2009/early 2010 throughout most of the rest of Europe. The United States was late to the party. Initially, U.S. distributor The Music Box purchased only the rights to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When that film became the year's biggest foreign language success during its March 2010 release, the company quickly acquired the other two films. The Girl Who Played with Fire opens on July 9 and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is due on October 15.

In a strange way, the structure of The Millennium Trilogy reminds me of the first Star Wars trio. The first movie establishes the characters while providing a largely self-contained story with a few "hooks" that can be used to further the narrative in additional installments. The second and third movies are inextricably wedded and function best when seen as parts of a whole. Installment #2 is darker than its predecessor and ends in a cliffhanger. Admittedly, it might sound like a stretch to compare a Gen-X touchstone space opera to a Swedish mystery thriller series, but I'm referring only to the rhythms of the stories, not the content.

In terms of tone, pacing, and approach, The Girl Who Played with Fire is different from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The first movie features a partnership between the lead characters, computer hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), and follows them as they embark upon an unconventional romance while investigating a particularly nasty kidnapping/murder. The style is in line with contemporary British and American murder mysteries: P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George (all of whom are said to have influenced Stieg Larsson, and some of whom are expressly mentioned in the novels). The second movie is more of a straightforward thriller with mystery elements and the lead characters do not interact, approaching the central dilemma from different angles. One can assume that the shift in director and screenwriter played a part in the subtle changes to the movies' feel. This doesn't mean The Girl Who Played with Fire is inherently better or worse than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; it's merely different. The important things - the characters, their relationships, and the way in which the story builds and twists - are italicized in both productions. This is a testimony to the faithfulness with which the source material has been approached. (One wonders if the same care will be taken in the English-language remake.)

The Girl Who Played with Fire concerns the double homicide of Millennium Magazine writers who are working on a story about a sex-trafficking ring. Forensic evidence places the blame for these murders, as well as the killing of parole officer Nels Bjurman (Peter Andersson), on Lisbeth, and the police begin hunting her. She, in turn, is tracking down the man she believes to be the real killer: a mysterious underworld crime lord known only as "Zala" (Georgi Staykov). Meanwhile, Mikael, convinced of Lisbeth's innocence in the matter, makes every attempt to contact her and, when that fails, he launches an investigation of his own which places him Zala's trail, headed toward a potential collision with Lisbeth.

With apologies to Michael Nyqvist, who is solid as Mikael, the real star of The Girl Who Played with Fire is Noomi Rapace. With a film under her belt as Lisbeth, she has become the character. It's an amazing, transformative performance - the kind that rivets the attention and allows one to forgive some of the minor "cheats" that often occur in mysteries. As good as Rapace was in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she's better here. No longer saddled with the need to breathe life into an unknown character, she can now set about adding breadth and depth to Lisbeth, and the results are astonishing. On those occasions when The Girl Who Played with Fire drags - and they are few - it's because Lisbeth is not on screen. Mikael isn't exactly boring but, compared to his female counterpart, he exhibits considerably less flair and color. The villains are suitably nasty: the sleazy Bjurman, whose rape of Lisbeth from the first film is re-visited; the cruel Zala, who is afflicted with a bad makeup job' and Zala's super-strength henchman, Ronald Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz), who reminds me of Robert Shaw's Red Grant from the James Bond film From Russia with Love.

The Girl Who Played with Fire is a firecracker of a story - sharply written, superbly acted, and fast-paced. The plot features the kinds of twists one expects from a good mystery. The characters act intelligently and rationally - the screenplay doesn't require instances of inexplicable stupidity to keep things moving. The content is adult in nature, both in terms of sexual candor and violence. Viewing a production not forced to self-censor to achieve a particular ratings standard is refreshing. With The Girl Who Played with Fire, I felt like I was seeing the undiluted vision of the filmmakers (and perhaps something of which the late Larsson would approve - these are his characters and his storyline) rather than the unsatisfying result of creative compromises.

If I had to make a call, I'd rank The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo slightly above The Girl Who Played with Fire. However, asking how the second part of a trilogy stands up to the first part without having seen the conclusion is in some ways an unfair question. Nevertheless, two-thirds of the way through, The Millennium Trilogy is looking like the North American cinematic event of 2010.

Girl Who Played with Fire, The (Sweden/Denmark/Germany, 2009)

Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: 2010-07-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: Swedish with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1