All the hype around publishing sensation Stieg Larsson, late author of the Millennium trilogy, doesn’t do the film version of The Girl Who Played with Fire any favors. Lacking the psychological intimacy afforded by the page, Daniel Alfredson’s film won’t inspire better than a shrug from audiences.
The first of two sequels to the all-around more compelling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire picks up with Swedish punk bisexual super-hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) abroad but still keeping tabs on her arch-nemesis Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), the degenerate lawyer the law sees as her upstanding legal guardian. Meanwhile, Millennium magazine, under the auspices of crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (dishwater-dull Michael Nyqvist) prepares a bombshell story exposing a sex trafficking ring and its clientele.
In short order, three people have been murdered, and all three deaths are pinned on Lisbeth, whose fingerprints are found on the murder weapon. We know she’s innocent, and so does Blomkvist, who bonded with her in the previous film. The key to solving the crime appears to lie with shadowy gangster Zala, a former Russian military intelligence agent who doesn’t want to be found, in part because of a shocking connection to Lisbeth’s past. Yes, this time, it’s personal. (Then again, I’m pretty sure it was before and will be again.)
Shot back-to-back with third installment The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, The Girl Who Played with Fire was intended for Swedish television, and the trimming of budget and, more importantly, time show in this feature version. Taking the reins from Tattoo director Niels Arden Oplev, Anderson proves unable to tap the story’s emotional undercurrents, and the lackluster acting follows suit. Rapace continues to bring a quiet intensity to the fearsome, tough-as-nails, no-nonsense Salander (her signature move? a taser to the groin), but the material’s just not here to demonstrate much character outside of her determined actions (many of which, anti-dramatically, are keyboard taps on her laptop).
Visually, the film has the drab look of a twenty-year-old BBC crime miniseries (exception: the rare occasion when something goes up in flames). As it is, the mystery plot is only borderline coherent and less convincing, but when the story steps outside of this comfort zone of understatement, matters just get strange. There’s a hulking thug (Mikael Spreitz) with a rare genetic disorder that deadens him to pain —he plays like a refugee from a Bond movie—and then there’s the scene in which Lisbeth, taking a page from Batman, shows her theatrical sense for instilling fear by donning Kabuki-white face makeup with a red "scar" painted to bisect her face.
This sort of thing works better in emotional context, which is where The Girl Who Played with Fire is at its worst. It’s also a requirement of the story that its heroes remain separate for nearly the entire running time (though Blomkvist cornily pledges, "I'm going to be there for her all the way”); the spark between the two is missed.