Sequels are a tough breed — and a bit of a bitch to get right. Recent history has shown that it is the rare film indeed that can stand up to its predecessor, let alone best it. Let me start by saying that I thought that Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (released earlier this year) was a marvelous film — powerful, gripping, haunting, and vastly entertaining (see my review here). As of this posting, it remains the best movie of the year in my opinion – it really isn’t even close. That was the first film of the trilogy based on the bestselling novels by the late Stieg Larsson. I have not read the books and didn’t know much about them at all, so the first film caught me completely off guard in the very best of ways. Then The Girl Who Played With Fire came out recently to lukewarm reviews, but I loved the first film so much and was so thoroughly impressed with its towering achievement that I most certainly had to check it for for myself.
Sadly, I must agree with the general consensus that this 2nd installment — directed by Daniel Alfredson (and not Oplev, which may have been a detriment) – doesn’t come close to touching the first. I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who says otherwise. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but there is so much wrong with it that it doesn’t make up for its intriguing storyline, frequent plot twists, and overall mystery. This film, by contrast, seems scattered and disjointed. The character development that was done so brilliantly in the first film is altogether lost here. The pacing is also somewhat slower, with the action taking the viewer to numerous locations throughout Sweden rather than keeping it centered and focused.
Part of what made the original so compelling was its two lead characters: the ever-resourceful Lisbeth Salander and disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist respectively), working together throughout the film to solve the fascinating mystery. Rapace gave the grittiest, most multi-layered performance of the year and if she is denied an Oscar nomination for doing so, then something is most terribly rotten in the state of Denmark (or Sweden, if you prefer). Here, her computer whiz Salander has become the prime suspect in the double murder of two journalists right before an expose of the Swedish sex trade is launched in Blomqvist’s Millennium magazine. Refusing to meet with Blomqvist, she tries her best to avoid being detected and find the murderer(s) herself. In doing so, Rapace is given very little to do – and knowing her range and scope, it just seems to be a terrible waste. She is a loner, an outcast, autonomous, disconnected — too much so. For his part, Blomqvist is absolutely sure of Salander’s innocence and does everything in his power to prove this to everyone, including the police. His faith in and love for her is clear throughout and NyQvist does a good job of conveying this without going overboard.
There are some terrible bad guys here, which make for great villains — and some fascinating discoveries made along the way, some believable and some, unfortunately, too far-fetched. Peter Andersson makes another appearance as the “sadistic pig” Nils Bjurman and he is so effective in this role, truly creating one of cinema’s most vile characters. Yasmine Garbi does admirably as Lisbeth’s lover and woman who unwittingly puts herself in grave danger by taking over her friend’s apartment — and as Alexander Zalachenko, Georgi Staykov under all the heavy make-up is loathsome and harrowing. There is a line in the film that describes Lisbeth as being indestructible — and boy does the story really take that theory to its most extreme — to the point where it is almost too implausible.
However, for all of its faults and setbacks, The Girl Who Played With Fire does deliver in terms of suspense and intrigue. Alfredson manages to keep you on your toes and wonder what the next piece of the jigsaw puzzle will be. At its core, the film is a mystery/thriller and it does provide in that respect. But the ending — what were they thinking with this ending?! I can understand leaving viewers hanging a bit, but this was far too abrupt and left you more frustrated than anything else.
Now it may be unfair to compare a sequel to its original, but that’s part of the bargain — and the studios and filmmakers are well aware of this. It is almost impossible to critique a sequel without some comparison to its original, especially when its the second film of an immensely popular trilogy with all three films released in the span of under a year (and I should mention that those who have not seen the first chapter, will be at a complete loss if they go into this second film blind). The upside here is that it provides a more modest level of expectation for the third film, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (also directed by Alfredson). Where the first film tidied things up rather soundly (though it sacrificed an utterly brilliant climax to do so), this second film leaves a few strings left untied, setting up the third and final installment quite nicely. Let’s hope it delivers in mighty fashion.
Director: Daniel Alfredson
To view the trailer for The Girl Who Played With Fire, click here.