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film_girl1Larsson's 'Girl Who Played With Fire' makes an incendiary thriller
There's good news for fans of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The two protagonists in that film (played by the same terrific actors) return in the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second Swedish film adapted from the international bestselling crime suspense trilogy by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson. But those expecting the kind of conventional buddy-buddy sleuthing arrangement found in most mystery franchises will be surprised. While both characters are drawn into the same investigation this time, they never dare to team up—the stakes are too high.

It's just another original touch that makes Larsson's books (and the film and TV versions they spawn) so compelling. The Girl Who Played With Fire was made by a different director than the first film, Daniel Alfredson, who crafts a fleet, taut thriller from a smart script by incoming screenwriter Jonas Frykberg. Larsson's three novels tell one large, intricate story, and Fire is very much the second act, a bridge between major plot threads established in the first installment and foreshadowed elements to be resolved in the last. (It even dares to conclude with a cliffhanger ending.) But the combination of dark, disturbing themes (sex, violence, abuse), kinetic action, and the deepening of the characters and their relationship keeps it as riveting as its predecessor.

Noomi Rapace, an actress of astonishing intensity, is back again as tattooed loner Lisbeth Salander—former abused child, ex-con, genius computer hacker, and implacable avenger against men in high places who victimize women. (It's always useful to remember that Larsson's original title for the first book was "Men Who Hate Women.") Last seen heading for the tropics with dirty money siphoned out of a corporate bank account, Lisbeth is back in Stockholm a year later to take care of some business with the slimeball lawyer who assaulted her in the first film.

Meanwhile, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (played with shrewd, rumpled affability by Michael Nyqvist)—one of the few males on earth Lisbeth trusts, and, briefly, her lover—is back at Millennium magazine, the prestigious muckraking journal dedicated to exposing corruption in Swedish society. But their plans to publish an exposé of a sex-trafficking ring with connections to Sweden's power elite are interrupted by three grisly murders. The next thing Mikael knows, Lisbeth's face is plastered all over the tabloids as the prime suspect.

Despite mounting circumstantial evidence, Mikael is unwavering in his certainty that Lisbeth is innocent. Although they have had no contact in a year, he launches an investigation of his own, hoping to find Lisbeth before the police do, to expose the real killer. Meanwhile, Lisbeth, an expert at living off the grid (the apartment she rents under a false name is rigged to alert her cell phone with live digital feed if anyone else tries to get in), is also searching for the murderer—a trail that leads her to an inevitable showdown with her oldest enemy.

The mystery plot is a bit more straightforward here than in Dragon Tattoo, while Lisbeth's backstory becomes more complex with each new revelation about her past. (In one of Alfredson's most effective dual montages, a witness tells Mikael a story from Lisbeth's past while we see her, miles away, revisiting the same information in an old dossier.) It's entertaining to compare Mikael's and Lisbeth's different investigating techniques—he wields the power of the press with sly audacity, she's an efficient terrorist (although not an assassin). But the sinister subtext that connects both installments is how deeply-ingrained anti-female prejudice is in all strata of society —from the wealthy and powerful sex trade clients who think nothing of using a woman chained to a bed, to trash-talking young beat cops on stakeout outside Lisbeth's flat.

film_girl1Not everything makes complete sense. (There's scant motivation for a spectacular fire in the woods at night, except that it looks cool.) But overall, Alfredson's dread-inducing thriller powers to a bang-up finale, while leaving plenty of loose ends for the last installment (due this fall): villains still at large, the identity of one pivotal character, and the fate of others. Stay tuned.

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE ★★★1/2 Watch film trailer >>>

With Noomi Rapace and Michael Nvqvist. Written by  Jonas Frykberg, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Directed by Daniel Alfredson. A Music Box release. Rated R. 129 minutes. In Swedish with English subtitles.

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