In case you're not already aware, the films based on Stieg Larsson's best-selling Millennium Trilogy books are released here in successive months, from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in August, followed by The Girl who Played with Fire this month, and then concluding with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest in October. While I had enjoyed the first installment tremendously, being a great introduction to fascinating characters, especially the titular girl Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), and having an aged old mystery to solve, the same cannot be said of this one, which like most middle films of a trilogy, find it hard to live up to the first film's billing, and leaving things open for the third film to wrap up.
The Girl Who Played with Fire picked up where the previous film left off, and had some fine touches to link elements back to its predecessor where Lisbeth revisits her corrupt guardian Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson) to remind him that she's still keeping tabs, and threatening him with his own gun should he remove the tattoo she left on him. On Mikael Blimkvist's (Michael Nyqvist) end, his Millennium magazine had just recruited a freelance writer Dag Svensson (Hans Christian Thulin) who's working on the finishing touches of his expose on the sex trafficking industry. However he and his girlfriend, who also completed her thesis on the same subject, were found gunned down in their apartment with Bjurman's gun, and Bjurman himself also found murdered. On the gun is Lisbeth's prints, and so begins a race against time to clear her's name.
Much of the fun from the first film is the chemistry shared between Lisbeth and Mikael as investigative partners working toward a common goal to solve a mystery, relying on their respective skills to do so, while working through an awkward relationship and romance. Here, their story arcs diverge much more, with each seemingly going about doing their own thing, one being quite behind the other (no prizes for guessing who) and rarely sharing the same frame together. We've been spoilt by the mystery in the first film, and would come to expect a similar level of engagement in the storyline, but this is not to be the case, as the plot here is of a more personal nature dwelling into the background of Lisbeth, with the sex trafficking plot somehow abandoned midway through the film.
But this reduced focus will be quite the delight to Lisbeth's fans, working on a backstory that we only get glimpses of as suggested in the Tattoo. The sadistic nature of the mystery in its predecessor now gives way to developing a richer background of Listbeth's character, in some ways at the expense of Mikael's even, which I thought skewed the film to tread very closely to a one-character film. However it is undeniable that the top draw for the Millennium Trilogy is the tattooed hacker Lisbeth, and Noomi Rapace gets a gorgeous amount of screen time to get to showcase her nuanced performance, as well as to delve deeper into her abused character, through a hidden past that will link up to the present day case, in some way.
The villains here may not seem quite as menacing from those in the first installment, other than an extremely strong man who's impervious to pain (quite cliched), and a handicapped senior citizen both of whom have links to Lisbeth's past. They're the archetypal villainous type with the brains and the brawn distinctly kept separate, successfully proving to be quite the dangerous couple when cooperating together, though this is only keenly felt in the finale, given the build up of the film at times feel as if it's going nowhere.
You'll require some pre-requisite knowledge from the earlier film to appreciate the dynamics of the lead characters here, especially in understanding why Mikael feels rather compelled to assist Lisbeth in clearing her name, and to go one level deeper into her troubled past. I'm just not about to pass judgement on Daniel Alfredson's helming of the film, taking over from Niels Arden Oplev since this is to be concluded in the final film, but if standing alone, my personal preference will still be The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Let's wait and see come October!
The Girl Who Played with Fire opens on 16 Sep 10!