The Girl Who Played With Fire -- Film Review

A heightened sense of reality mixed with pure pulp fiction is what makes Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy such compulsive reading.

A heightened sense of reality mixed with pure pulp fiction is what makes Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy such compulsive reading.

Few modern writers could get away with heroes who are such staunch moralists going up against villains who drip with such unrepentant evil. But Larsson's genius is to locate these figures in an utterly realistic Nordic landscape described with such precision that one can smell the copious cups of coffee his characters consume and feel the cold wind funneling through Stockholm's wintry streets even as one senses the rage at social injustice simmering beneath every sentence. Noir never has been this dark.

"The Girl Who Played With Fire," the second Swedish film adaptation of the late author's international best-sellers, receives a limited opening in North America. So this gives one the opportunity to congratulate the filmmakers -- writer Jonas Frykberg and director Daniel Alfredson -- on their accomplishment even as one commiserates with them over the impossibility of doing full justice to Larsson's brilliant conception.

As with the first film, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," which was made by different filmmakers, the film ably collapse story lines and characters down to manageable size to achieve a coherent, breathtaking race against time to solve horrific crimes. What one loses in this condensation, though, is Larsson's angry indictment of the corruption and venality that (according to him) permeates Swedish society.

In the movie, the two heroes pursue a few freaks: a rapist, a superhuman killer and a Cold War spy. In the books, though, they go up against a vast, interconnected network of corrupt authority figures in business and government, sick with power and all aiding and abetting one another. A strong feminist subtext involving the cruelty men visit upon women runs through the crime novels as well.

Picking up a year following the incidents in the first movie, the story's two protagonists are estranged from each other. The "girl" in all the titles is Lisbeth Salander (a perfectly cast Noomi Rapace), a brooding, anti-social, fiercely independent bisexual computer hacker with multiple tattoos and body piercings. After helping crusading business journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) solve a 40-year-old cold case and, not incidentally, restore his good name in journalism, Lisbeth is horrified to find she has fallen in love with the older man.

This is an even greater threat to her independence than her legal guardian, a lawyer who liked to beat and rape her until she violently turned the tables on him. So Lisbeth has cut off all contact with the bewildered publisher of Millennium magazine. Then, on the eve of the magazine's publication of an expose of extensive sex trafficking in Sweden, its two authors are murdered.

Shockingly, Lisbeth's fingerprints are found on the murder weapon. Making matters worse, the gun belongs to her guardian, and soon he (spoiler alert) also is found dead.

Separately, the two plunge into an investigation. Police are certain of Lisbeth's guilt, but Mikael means to prove her innocent. As with all the stories in the series, these investigations shed more and more light about Lisbeth's troubled past.

She certainly is one of the most original and electrifying characters in all of crime fiction, gifted with phenomenal investigative abilities from a photographic memory to computer skills as well as a fearless capacity to physically attack much larger men.

Rapace does full justice to the character, though she is better looking and not nearly as skinny as Lisbeth is described in the books. Her eyes brim with cold hatred when an adversary approaches, and her lithe moments are like a big cat's when intent on a kill. She, like everyone else in these stories, is humorless and in dead earnest about getting past the lies and incompetence that smother her society.

Nyqvist is stolid and workmanlike in his approach to Mikael. The movies don't quite replicate to the character's fierce intelligence, but they do get his doggedness and kindness.

As with the first film, the villains ultimately turn out to be a father and son, and Larsson has bequeathed these two with almost supernatural strength in one case and villainy in both. They would be cartoons in lesser fiction, but it is a tribute to Larsson's writing and to the filmmakers' realistic approach that they are flesh and blood.

Peter Mokrosinski's cinematography and Jacob Groth's music are major attributes.

Opens: Friday, July 2 (New York and Chicago) (Music Box Films)
Production: Yellow Bird, Nordisk Film, Sveriges Television
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre, Peter Andersson, Annika Hallin, Per Oscarsson. Director: Daniel Alfredson
Screenwriter: Jonas Frykberg
Based on the novel by: Stieg Larsson
Producer: Soren Staermose
Executive producers: Mikael Wallen, Ole Sondberg, Anni Faurbye Fernandez, Peter Nadermann, Lone Korslund, Gunnar Carlsson
Director of photography: Peter Mokrosinski
Production designers: Jan Olof Agren, Maria Haard
Music: Jacob Groth
Costume designer: Cilla Rorby
Editor: Mattias Morheden
No rating, 129 minutes