The Girl Who Played with Fire Review
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first book in the late Stieg Larsson’s Magnum Opus, dubbed the ‘Millennium Trilogy’. It was a smart and superior thriller, a compelling page-turner which soon became an international bestseller, translated for sales across the globe. A film adaptation of the trilogy was inevitable (as was the upcoming Hollywood remake), but thankfully the Swedish original was successful enough to garner popular appeal despite being in a foreign language. The first chapter, Dragon Tattoo was a laudable and respectful translation of the material, a great movie based on a great book. It perfectly infused an elaborate plot with interesting, well-developed characters brought to life by stellar performances, and made for one of the best murder mystery thrillers over the last few years. Although the first book/film was relatively stand-alone, rounding off everything very satisfactorily and leaving no urgent need to return to the characters or story arcs – as largely everything had been resolved; it was nevertheless but one part in a trilogy, and it is in the second chapter where the ‘bigger picture’ becomes devastatingly clear.
If you’ve never read the books, or seen the first movie, then that’s where it all begins and that’s where you should really start. Having reviewed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I was interested in seeing where they would go with the second movie, and whether it would live up to both the original source material and the excellent opening salvo.
As a brief recap (not that you need it as there are plenty of flashbacks incorporated into the movie to jog your memory) the first story followed Journalist Mikael Blomkvist, a partner in the Millennium publications group, who was investigating an old missing persons case at the behest of an ageing millionaire. He was assisted by a freelance research analyst, Lisbeth Salander, a striking, aloof, goth-dressed computer hacker with a dark past and a violent temper, who proves to be a vital companion to Blomkvist. He, in turn, shows himself to be one of the few people in the world that she may actually be able to trust. Together they solve the mystery, with Lisbeth stealing a large chunk of blood money and escaping to far-off sunny climes. It was a satisfying ending to a compelling mystery thriller.
Where Dragon Tattoo was almost more about Mikael Blomkvist than Lisbeth Salander, The Girl who played with Fire completely reverses the trend, now positing her previously-introduced hero as the focal point of the story; picking up with her living off her ill-gotten gains, having severed her connections with the past for over a year. But when a mysterious group targets her and frames her for the murder of several people, Lisbeth has to put her life on the line once again, and use all of her cunning and intellect to keep one step ahead of not only those who are hunting her, but also the authorities who are after her. It happens that two of the people she is accused of murdering were working for Blomkvist on a joint-investigation to uncover a large sex slave ring, with ties to politicians, the police and even a mysterious Russian spy who defected to Sweden several decades back. This time Lisbeth needs Blomkvist’s help in clearing her name and getting to the truth behind it all, a dark revelation which may be far bigger than the two of them could have possibly predicted.
I had heard mixed things about The Girl who played with Fire, so much so that – despite how impressed I was with Dragon Tattoo I was put off tracking down the sequel at the local cinema during its brief theatrical run. And now I can totally see why the follow-up has raised some issues with fans of the first movie, as it has neither the quality shock value of the original nor the taut, multi-level narrative which all comes together in the final denouement. Some of this can be blamed on the fact that this is essentially the first part of a storyline that is not fully resolved until the final chapter in the trilogy, The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a bit of a surprise when those familiar with the first movie would have been previously sated by its all-inclusive storyline. Here we just have to wait and see what happens and, as long as the third part pulls it off, it may well make the second instalment a more worthy entry. For the time being though, we have to wait with bated breath, this Matrix Reloaded-style middle-entry really only setting things up for either an epic finale, or a disappointing anticlimax (i.e. Matrix Revolutions).
However, as I stated, not everything can be blamed on the fact that this is a two-part mystery. The change in Director can also be felt, not only in terms of a more TV-style scope (more of that in the video section) but also in the very way he films the movie’s key scenes. This is, after all, supposed to be a movie, and yet it never transcends its TV genes. Of course the reality is that only Dragon Tattoo was shot as a movie, by solid Swedish Director Niels Arden Oplev, and that he was not allowed to return to do the subsequent adaptations, which were always intended to be in a TV-format of four 90 minute episodes (two per book). Thus Daniel Alfredson took over, and the end result suffers distinctly as a result.
Although the first movie did lose some footage in translation (otherwise it would have ended up being 3 hours long!), the abridged sequel suffers much more from what’s been left on the cutting room floor, with some scenes not quite making sense and plenty of character motivations going underdeveloped. Why has Lisbeth cut contact with Blomkvist? What happened to the police investigation? (These are just two examples which were clearly explained in the first and second books, respectively, and which – I assume – were detailed more adequately in the extended cuts). But whilst the structure of Dragon Tattoo survived as a whole, and it became a coherent, superior thriller, The Girl who played with Fire does not hold up as well at all.
The new Director clearly did not find as much success in editing down the full 180 minutes of TV episodes into a manageable theatrical release, and even in the material he has presented, he does not do a particularly stellar job. The movie’s main plot threads do not really gel together at all, and the narrative is governed by far too much coincidence and happenstance (were it not for watching the TV or happening across a news bulletin plastered on a wall, both the heroes and the villains would have been caught or killed several times across the proceedings). Even the heavily-touted confrontation between a professional boxer buddy of Lisbeth’s and the über-villain’s almost-invulnerable lead henchman comes across as tame and distinctly TV-styled in nature. Seriously, it seems like an important fight (even dissected amidst the extras) and yet it is filmed in a very amateur, noticeably TV-framed way that seldom showcases the necessary intensity for such an integral moment. And neither the scene, nor the characters are really expanded upon further. Disappointing.
The narrative, whilst ostensibly much more clear-cut than the mystery in the first movie, is also populated by far more clichés – obvious do-no-wrong heroes and traditionally evil villains, where the previous movie’s representations seemed much more real. In fact, some would probably say that this story is more like something out of a Bond movie (albeit a good one) as opposed to a superior mystery thriller, so caricatured are the towering, indestructible henchman – who was even almost played by Dolph Lundgren! – and the scarred, handicapped mastermind supposedly behind it all. (Ernst Stavro Blofeld anyone?)
Still, in spite of its obvious shortcomings, it is ultimately a watchable entry, and does – fingers crossed – set things up for an effective final movie. It may well be that, as a trilogy, this middle-entry will feel much more necessary, rather than just an unfinished product. And hell, if we were to ever finally get the full uncut 3 hour versions, that are currently only available in Sweden (can anyone say ‘double-dip’?), then I bet this would be an infinitely more satisfying ride.
As such, for the time being, we have to make do with a reasonably engaging main story (featuring Lisbeth but largely dropping Blomkvist), some meandering sub-plots and seemingly extraneous characters, and an up-in-the-air ending which will leave you a little bit frustrated until January. Thankfully, I mentioned Lisbeth in there as one of the good points on the list, and it is probably almost solely because of actress Noomi Rapace’s now-pivotal lead character that the whole thing holds together and proves to be, ultimately, reasonably compelling.
Rapace’s haunted, damaged portrayal of the Millennium Trilogy’s lead character, Lisbeth Salander, is really enough reason to watch these movies alone. A striking enough character in written form, Rapace brings her to life with starkly unconventional beauty, a bony body with enough prominent ribs to make an anorexic gasp, enough armpit hair to make any proto-feminist proud, and a goth style to her which certainly sets her apart from the crowd. Her diet is chain-smoked cigarettes, coffee and random lesbian sex. And yet it’s the well-developed character within that truly engages – this woman that’s so damn damaged (and even more punishingly haunted by it because of her photographic memory, a fact that was made much more clear in the first movie) that she has her spikes up for everybody she meets. She has rightful reason too, the abuse comes from every direction, but it also means that the few true friends that she has get locked out along with the rest.
In this entry they do not have quite as much time to explore the way her mind thinks – the movie expects you to have a good grounding from having seen the first instalment. Instead of character development we get to see a little bit more of her in action, her preparedness, her clever tactics to combat physically superior enemies, and her ultimate confrontation with her worst enemy. It’s a very personal voyage for Rapace’s Lisbeth, much more so than the Dragon Tattoo (but at the expense of Blomkvist’s previously integral character). I also think that, for this reason, the title name – The Girl who played with Fire – is much more appropriate. The Swedish translation of the first movie’s title, “Men who hate Women”, was vastly superior (and much more appropriate) to the English name, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but, having seen the second movie, I can now see why they’ve gone down the route of naming all three instalments variants of “The Girl with/who...”. The second book’s original Swedish title translates as the same thing – i.e. “The Girl who played with Fire” – so it’s good that they stuck with it; it totally works for the character, her story-arc and the situation, both past and present, which now haunts her.
All in all, this middle entry delivers some of what you would expect from the excellent first chapter, but is certainly not consistent throughout. I’d say the last forty minutes is damn good storytelling – the same kind of tension and punishment that you would expect after Dragon Tattoo – but the rest of the ninety minutes is a poorly pieced-together, stripped-down version of the far superior book (and, no doubt, superior extended 3 hour cut). However, at a time when Hollywood is churning out no end of reboots and rehashes of everybody else’s work, The Girl who played with Fire is still bristling with originality and passion. I dare say that the impending Hollywood remake of the trilogy, thankfully Directed by David ‘Seven’ Fincher, starring Daniel Craig (as Blomkvist, guaranteeing the character will get more screentime) and relatively fresh face – and unconventional beauty – Rooney Mara as Lisbeth (a far superior choice to someone like Scarlett Johansson or even the touted alternative, Natalie Portman, who is simply too unquestionably gorgeous to play the part), will prove to offer us a better adaptation of this inadequately rendered second chapter. I don’t think Dragon Tattoo can be topped, and I still don’t think anybody should be even trying it, but, given the TV roots of the second and third chapters, perhaps a slightly bigger budget and a more cinematic approach in the Directing will improve the sequels and thus improve the trilogy as a whole. We’ll see.
My best advice – if you have the patience – is to hold off on seeing this movie until the third chapter comes out. There’s just too much left unresolved not to regard the two films as ‘part 1’ and ‘part 2’, and I am sure that they will end up being better watched back-to-back. This TV-movie-style middle-entry is a decent watch, an original and interesting story, but not enough to stand up as a feature film. And not like the first movie. I’m glad I didn’t see it at the cinema as I would, no doubt, have come away disappointed. If you can wait until January, when they release the concluding chapter, The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest (or, as per the Swedish translation, “The Castle in the Sky that got Blown Up”!) then you may find this middle entry a far more engaging watch, setting up the larger story for an effective denouement which you can immediately proceed to enjoy. Anyway, it’s just a suggestion.
If you can’t wait, then you should try and go easy on this film. Accept the fact that it will not live up to your expectations from the first movie, and that it was made on a smaller budget, for TV, and Directed by a TV Director – who simply could not pull off the massive editing process to tailor it for a theatrical run – and watch it knowing that the final film may give you the satisfaction that this one did not quite achieve. I still maintain that the Millennium Trilogy will prove itself to, ultimately, be one of the best and most important trilogies of the new millennium, and can’t wait to see the final film to find out if I am indeed right. Recommended, with some patience and leniency, this one earns a high 7, but if the concluding chapter proves to come through on the promise here, it will likely push the overall score of the trilogy up a notch.