Friday, August 6, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire: Smoldering

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2010) • View trailer for The Girl Who Played with Fire
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity, nudity, rape and strong sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.6.10
Buy DVD: The Girl Who Played With Fire • Buy Blu-Ray: The Girl Who Played with Fire [Blu-ray]

The characters are no longer as provocatively fresh, and we've learned that Stieg Larsson's plots can be extremely nasty. 

But familiarity certainly doesn't breed contempt. Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth Salander remains one of cinema's truly great characters, and parts of The Girl Who Played with Fire are just as tense as what went down in this film's predecessor. 
Having gotten to know Lisbeth Salander quite intimately
during the events depicted in the previous film,
investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael
Nyqvist, right) refuses to believe that she could be guilty
of the three murders with which she has been charged.
Alas, investigating detective Jan Bublanski (Johan Kylen)
doesn't share Mikael's faith in the absent Lisbeth, whose
location remains unknown. To make matters worse,
Bublanski resents Mikael's tendency to embarrass the
police ... which leaves our crusading reporter to do his
own sleuthing. (Would we have it any other way?)

Perhaps even more suspenseful, since we now know that Larsson doesn't pull his punches. If no single scene in this film generates the sickening horror of Salander's rape in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it ain't for lack of effort. Bad things happen to good people here. 

That said, replacement director Daniel Alfredson simply doesn't have the snap that Niels Arden Oplev brought to the first film. Alfredson's approach is more routine, less galvanic; he doesn't exactly dilute the twisty plot or intriguing characters, but he also doesn't bring much to the party. 

Were she not so emotionally damaged and oddly vulnerable, Rapace's character could be regarded as less mortal and more iconic: a pierced, black-garbed avenging angel placed on Earth hunt down "men who hate women," as crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, also returning) perceives her. 

The beauty of Rapace's performance, though, is the intriguing balance between human frailty and adrenaline-fueled hatred. Salander is such a tiny little thing  one wonders how she's able to handle a huge motorcycle, in one scene  that first-time acquaintances can be forgiven their assumption of weakness. But Rapace makes us believe that rage and ferocious skill trump size, particularly when she sets her mouth grimly and we watch, with both satisfaction and horror, as all humanity and compassion drain from her dark eyes. 

Aside from some quick scenes that establish the sex-traffickers who hover malignantly throughout this story, Fire begins somewhat quietly, allowing us to get a better sense of the relationships between Blomkvist, Salander and various side characters that were given short shrift in the first film. Larsson's books are dense, to say the least; while the screenwriters  Jonas Frykberg here, Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg on Tattoo  have done an impressive job of compression while retaining all the crucial bits, one can lament the missing subtleties. 

Thus, it's nice to learn more about the curious professional/personal dynamic between Blomkvist and his Millennium magazine publishing partner, Erika Berger (Lena Endre), whose marriage  to somebody left unseen in this film  hasn't stopped casual sleepovers with Mikael. (Ah, that European sensibility!) We also see more of Blomkvist's family life and get a stronger sense of his journalistic skills: less a probing researcher, as he was in Tattoo, and more a take-no-prisoners ambush interviewer. 

As for Salander, one telling encounter with her former employer cuts to the core of her inability to trust other people: She may have ample cause for being so closed off, but the accusation stings nonetheless. Rapace handles this scene perfectly, her expression a blend of underplayed astonishment and fleeting pain, as if the concept of "friendship" were completely alien ... but perhaps worth considering. 

This exploration of Salander's softer side continues during a confrontation with her occasional lover, Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi). Although their subsequent love scene sizzles with movie-screen eroticism, the post-coital afterglow is better staged: unexpectedly tender, the two women completely at ease in their shared nudity as Wu surprises Salander with a belated birthday gift. Here, too, Rapace's impressively subtle performance reveals a bit more of her complex character's inner workings. 

Salander, having enjoyed a year of travel on the fruits of her efforts from the previous film, returns to Stockholm out of boredom and a vague sense of business still unfinished. She offers her old apartment to Miriam while taking carefully concealed new digs of her own: a benevolent gesture that prompts a scream of alarm bells in our brain, knowing  as we viewers do  that unsavory characters want Lisbeth's head on a plate. 

The question is, who are these unsavory types? And what's their connection to the smarmy legal guardian (Peter Andersson, returning as Nils Bjurman) who raped Salander in the first film? 

Blomkvist, meanwhile, has his own fresh puzzle. He and Erika hire a young journalist, Dag (Hans Christian Thulin), who with his girlfriend has spent several months researching a massive expose on prostitution and the trafficking of women from Eastern Europe. It's the perfect hard-hitting story for Millennium  guaranteed to embarrass numerous high-profile "clients"  although we can't help questioning Dag's absence of self-preservation skills; he seems blithely unaware of how dangerous these waters are. 

In contrast with the first film, these two parallel storylines never intersect to a degree that re-unites Salander and Blomkvist, and that's a problem. We watched them establish a strong bond in Tattoo, and it's peculiar to find Blomkvist once again struggling to break through Salander's icy reserve, as if their earlier collaborative teamwork never occurred. 

Indeed, we get far more emotional juice during a sequence that involves Wu and a new character, a professional boxer named Paolo (Paolo Roberto, essentially playing himself). The two wind up on the wrong side of this story's most chilling hulking menace: a tall, bulky and pale-blond brute played with nightmare-inducing intensity by Micke Spreitz. The resulting skirmish is quite a nail-biter. 

Odd that this should be one of the film's standout scenes, stealing focus from both Blomkvist and Salander. But that gets back to Alfredson's directorial shortcomings; he simply doesn't deliver the numerous "sense of discovery" moments that so brilliantly fueled the experience of watching Tattoo. Nothing here matches the exciting chill we got in the first film, while watching Blomkvist uncover the several dozen photographs that ultimately exposed the reason behind Harriet Vanger's disappearance. 

We also don't spend nearly as much time appreciating Salander's skill as a computer hacker, which is ironic, since it's her key talent. 

On the other hand, Alfredson does understand the application of pacing as a means of slowly building tension, and he cleverly maneuvers his characters to a climax with mild echoes of Jodie Foster's pursuit of Buffalo Bill, at the end of The Silence of the Lambs

I can't help being annoyed by Sony's recent announcement heralding Daniel Craig's having been cast as Blomkvist in director David Fincher's American remake of Tattoo, due next year; the timing seems calculated to undercut the current release of this second film in the Swedish series, as if to suggest that Stateside viewers need not worry about subtitles when, in short order, they can enjoy a version with actors who speak English. 

Poppycock. While acknowledging that Craig is savvy casting for the role, Nyqvist is just fine, thank you very much. He, too, has the craggy look of a journalist who has taken a few too many knocks. Plus  just as important  he's credibly "ordinary." 

More to the point, thriller fans who recoil at the thought of subtitles are missing the riveting delights of Rapace's performance as Salander: a woman with countless hidden layers, each new revelation exposing just a bit more of her soul. More questions remain for when the series concludes with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest  Alfredson directing again, with new scripters  due on our shores later this year. 

I'm already waiting... 

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