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Most of the talk about the American remake of Sweden’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has focused on which American actress has The Look. Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander, its inked heroine, was all eyeliner and edge, with piercings and leather and a black Kate Gosselin haircut that came off as appropriately Goth instead of ridiculous. She was tiny but tough, fighting back with remarkable physicality against those who wronged her. Lisbeth didn’t particularly care if she was a law-abiding citizen. And you loved her for it.
In The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Look is largely gone, and likewise dampened is Lisbeth’s ability to fascinate. The phenomenon that’s become the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series is similar to The Twilight Saga—except that the books are well-written and the first film adaptation is excellent. Which means expectations for the second installment are high enough to be unsatisfiable.
The strikingly original character Larsson brought to life is, alas, already getting predictable. Here, Rapace’s antisocial hacker returns with long hair and less makeup, first introduced waking in a gorgeous, sun-filled house and stepping outside to gaze at the sea. After solving the case of a long-missing teenager with Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a disgraced journalist she kept tabs on long after her assignment was over, Lisbeth traveled for a year, leaving empty her apartment in Sweden. Now, money from her mother’s estate allows her to lie low in another gorgeous place while she lets a sometime-lover (Yasmine Garbi) stay at her flat.
Lisbeth hasn’t had contact with Mikael and never told her boss at an investigative company that she was leaving. (“You don’t care about other people,” he admonishes when she comes to apologize.) Her only link to the world is her laptop, which she uses to occasionally check up on Mikael and her dirt-bag guardian, Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson). It’s information on the latter that gets the action going: Lisbeth finds out that he’s not submitting glowing reports on her as they agreed, and also has looked into removing the tattoo she scrawled across his torso. That would be “I’m a sadistic pig and a rapist,” and she sticks Bjurman’s own gun to his head to let him know that should he have it erased, she’ll only carve it into his forehead.
Lisbeth, gloveless, puts the gun down as she storms out. Ya think that’ll cause her some trouble later?
Supplying a plot beyond Lisbeth’s re-threatening of old nemeses is a new colleague of Mikael’s who’s working on a story about a sex-trafficking ring and the high-profile johns involved. But that guy and a couple of others end up dead, and Lisbeth’s prints are on the weapon. Now she really has a reason to be antisocial, being wanted for a triple-murder and all. Mikael wants to help—if only he can find her!
Taking the reins from Dragon Tattoo director Niels Arden Oplev is Daniel Alfredson, who delivers a film that’s simultaneously blustery and passive. Straight-up violence wholly replaces the subtle creepiness that lurked throughout the first film, with a mysterious new character—at one point described as a “blond tank”—inflicting pain on others while a convenient medical defect prevents him from feeling any himself. Separately, Mikael and Lisbeth work on both the murder and trafficking cases, which is one of the story’s biggest flaws. Rapace is reduced to a nearly silent performance, save for a Taser here and threat there; mostly, Lisbeth smokes and looks vaguely alarmed as she sees herself on wanted posters or spies on some bad guys. We do get more of her backstory, but nothing that wasn’t obvious from the first movie’s flashbacks. (This background does, though, help the film stand alone.)
There’s enough of a whodunit element to The Girl Who Played With Fire to keep the story engaging, but it’s not nearly as thrilling as our initial introduction to the brilliant, dark, violent force of nature and her unlikely pairing with a smart but egoless journo who actually admits he could use someone’s help. The climax has a surprise, though its unraveling is like a scene out of a horror movie, complete with implausibility. And then the film just…ends. It’s a vexing non-wrap-up, made a bit more irksome by the assumption that viewers will obediently follow the trilogy to its conclusion—regardless of the franchise’s seemingly diminishing returns.