by Tony Dayoub
This time it's personal.
During the mid-eighties, at the height of the suspense genre in America, when audiences would develop an attachment to a star like Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson over a span of several movies in some series of crime thrillers, this seemingly ubiquitous tag line usually resided somewhere on the poster for the sequel, implying we were going to find out more about our hero's background in the sophomore movie since we enjoyed the character so much in the first. The truth is I can only find one real reference to this tag line in cinema, and that is for the fourth entry in the Jaws series, Jaws: The Revenge (but it felt widespread enough that Back to the Future Part II makes a small joke about it with a Jaws 19 poster that reads "This time it's really really personal"). A sequel starring large-scale central characters inevitably turns inward to examine its own protagonists, let the audience know what makes them tick. So it's not unexpected that The Girl Who Played with Fire would follow suit, justifying the use of such a tag line by turning its focus on the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander. The second part in this Swedish suspense trilogy digs deeper into the pierced, emo-looking, kickboxing, computer-hacking basket case so intriguingly played by Noomi Rapace in the earlier The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). But does it find anything there to sustain our interest?
While the first film's title focused on Salander's exotic punk "otherness," this one refers to another of her defining qualities, her emotional aloofness. As The Girl Who Played with Fire declares in its title, the story behind Salander's detachment stems from a specific incident in her youth (the flashback of which we saw in the first film) when she lit her father on fire. Institutionalized for the crime, she fell prey to continuous abuse by many of the men assigned to protect her. This film conspiratorially ties them all to a human trafficking ring which, for some confusing reason I forget, frames Salander for murder. The white slavery McGuffin ends up disappearing from the plot altogether, as the story is reframed to follow on Salander's efforts to clear her name while her journalist buddy, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) helps her from afar.
Therein lies the most glaring flaw of this trite unconventional storyline. The Girl Who Played with Fire sacrifices the only aspect of the series which transcends its rather ordinary thriller tropes, the chemistry between Rapace and Nyqvist as an odd couple sleuthing team. The ineffable mystery of their bond disappears with the logorrheic insistence on exposing Salander's soul. In my review of the last film, I compared Salander and Blomkvist to Star Trek's Spock and Kirk, respectively. The description is not inapt. Salander has a near inhuman ability to break through any computer firewall, superhuman kickboxing prowess, a photographic memory, etc.; her only deficiency is her inability to express emotion. Blomkvist is all too human, displaying humor, empathy, and dogged determination when needed, even if occasionally he needs Salander to play deus ex machina and save his ass from some impending doom. The intention here, is to turn the tables on Salander, place her out of her depth so Blomkvist can save her. But it does so at the expense of keeping them separated for roughly 119 of the film's 129 minutes, with each failing to understand the story in toto, losing the audience in the process.
Salander is left to fight her most dangerous battle yet against an evil man who knows her best of all. And she still manages to stay ahead of every henchman, every obstacle, she even puts more of the pieces of the puzzling mystery together faster than her partner does. So what is the point? In approaching the level of divine intercessor in her own backstory, she becomes an unknowable cipher. Her soul is splayed open for all to see, and what we find is as steely and hollow inside as it once appeared from the outside. And there's still one more movie to go. What are they going to say next time?
This time it's really really personal?
The Girl Who Played with Fire opens Friday in limited release.