17 September 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire

Noomi Rapace portrays Lisbeth Salander in a scene from "The Girl Who Played with Fire."
Intrigued by the challenge of telling a story with no real beginning or end, I often find the middle installment of film trilogies to be the most interesting. "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" immediately come to mind. To that we can potentially add "The Girl Who Played with Fire," the follow-up to "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," based on the second novel in Swedish author Stieg Larsson's "Millenium" trilogy.

By now, the story behind the books and movies is well-known. Larsson, a journalist, died prior to the publication of his novels, which became worldwide best-sellers and spawned film adaptations from his native country, as well as American versions now in the works under the direction of David Fincher ("Seven," "Fight Club," "Zodiac").

Because most movie-goers here refuse to read subtitles, the English-language adaptations surely will reach a larger audience. But it is hard to imagine them being better than the original Swedish films, featuring the fiery Noomi Rapace in an iconic performance as the title character, misfit computer hacker Lisbeth Salander.

"The Girl Who Played with Fire" picks up about a year after the events of "Dragon Tattoo," with no recap other than recalling the brutal rape of the earlier installment in brief flashes of memory and dreams.

While "Dragon Tattoo" was a relatively straightforward whodunit, "Played with Fire" raises the stakes, telling a story that is at once further reaching and more intimate. Part one introduced Salander; part two begins to delve into her past and who she is.

Salander is the prime suspect in the murders of her rapist (Peter Andersson), a writer (Hans-Christian Thulin) working on a piece on the Swedish sex trade for Millennium magazine and his girlfriend. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), Millennium's star journalist, doesn't doubt her innocence and sets out to prove it.
Traveling separate paths, Salander and Blomkvist arrive at the same destination: a mysterious gangster known as Zala (Georgi Staykov) and his henchman, a blond giant of a man (Mikael Spreitz) who feels no pain.

Though much of the mystery surrounding Salander is removed, the character and the film do not suffer for it. If anything, it adds layers of complexity, depths for Rapace to explore. Even more than in "Dragon Tattoo," she simply IS Salander, fully inhabiting the character, and it is because she is so compelling and not due to the faults of any of the rest of the cast that the movie suffers a bit when she is off screen.

Rapace could be on the verge of becoming a major international star, and Rooney Mara, cast as Salander in the American version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (due in theaters in December 2011), has colossal shoes to fill.

Director Daniel Alfredson and screenwriter Jonas Frykberg, taking over for "Dragon Tattoo's" director, Niels Arden Oplev, and screenwriters, Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, streamline Larsson's narrative, minimizing the bumbling police investigation to focus on Salander and Blomkvist. The result is a stronger, tighter story that refuses to release its tension.

The movie ends on the same cliffhanger as the novel, but you will not have to wait long to pick up the action. The finale, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," hits U.S. theaters in October.

Greg's Grade: A

(Rated R for brutal violence including a rape, some strong sexual content, nudity and language. 129 minutes.)

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