When the Harry Potter film series approached J.K. Rowling's fifth and sixth novels, its screenwriters mercifully whittled the books down to the necessary narrative to ensure that Rowling's wheel-spinning words wouldn't keep the adaptations from having proper momentum as movies.
Whereas the right hands saved those stories from their sources, a new director and writer have caused Stieg Larsson's immensely popular Millennium trilogy to slip from a taut, gripping first film ' The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ' with a slack, flat, faithful-to-a-fault follow-up, The Girl Who Played with Fire.
Everyone's favorite bisexual punk hacker is back, as we see the newly wealthy and well-tanned Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) return to Stockholm following her Caribbean getaway. She refuses to keep in touch with redeemed journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) despite his best efforts, but she soon needs his help when an unknown adversary frames her for a triple-murder.
The name-clearing hook is a good one, pushing Lisbeth out of her comfort zone and allowing Mikael to reciprocate her day-saving efforts from the first film. But with director Daniel Alfredson and writer Jonas Frykberg taking the reins, the mystery grows tedious and contrived as Lisbeth's emerging family history deflates her steely mystique along the way. Flashbacks from the earlier film are fleshed out to unsatisfying ends, and new ones suggest that she may have endured the most conveniently troubled childhood this side of Precious. It's a shame that these moments ' mixed in with a gratuitous lesbian lip-lock or two ' are left to define our otherwise striking heroine more than her actions.
The nature of the plot also dictates that Lisbeth and Mikael spend much of the film apart from one another, thus robbing the film of their unlikely chemistry as crime-solving partners. Both characters merely follow breadcrumbs as other ancillary characters get into car chases and bare-knuckle brawls in burning buildings. The groan-inducing revelations are doled out with all the pacing of a TV miniseries. (At 129 minutes, Fire is a whole reel shorter than Tattoo, but it feels even longer.)
The good guys are now armed with silly gadgets; the baddies are neurologically wired to not feel pain; the situations are a notch more ridiculous and the stakes are somehow lower than before. Rapace and Nyqvist both put on their determined faces, but neither gets to demonstrate their prior levels of resourcefulness or vulnerability.
As I understand it, the third novel doesn't improve the dramatic situation much, and with Alfredson and Frykberg at the helm once more, I'm skeptical that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest will restore the series. Let's hope whomever is tasked with scripting the American remake of this installment [Schindler's List screenwriter Steven Zaillian got the Tattoo job] will eventually give Fire some actual heat.