If you haven’t read Stieg Larsson’s mega-selling Millennium Trilogy — about bisexual superhacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander and her dogged journalist defender Mikael Blomkvist — don’t expect to understand everything in “The Girl Who Played With Fire.” The film adaptation of the second book by the late Swedish author isn’t as gripping as the first film, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Then again, of the three books, “Tattoo” was the most compelling read. And self-contained.
Here’s one problem with “Fire,” which fans of the series discover for themselves when they read the novel: it’s a cliffhanger. It and the final book, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest,” are really one unbroken story. There is another problem. A friend of mine had a German-language copy of the final book in Larrson’s trilogy, and it included something that English-language versions really needed: a glossary that lists and IDs the dozens of characters (some with confusingly similar names) who weave in and out of the story. There are a hell of a lot of people running around here.
Still, the film of “Fire” will sate viewers looking for some Swedish skullduggery. Just be glad there’s no pop quiz at the end. The action kicks off a year after “Tattoo.” Previously intimate with crusading reporter-editor Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) while solving a series of murders, elfin punk Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) has cut the man out of her life. She’s hurt that he has an ongoing thing with his married boss, Erika (Lena Endre). (Oh, those Swedes!)
Lisbeth can’t hurt too much, though, because she’s super-rich, having quietly transferred a billion or so kronor into her bank account from the coffers of the corrupt industrialist whom she and Blomkvist ruined in the previous tale. Living solo in an enormous Stockholm apartment, which she uses primarily for smoking and staring at the waterfront, she fills her lonely hours by striking up a cinematically friendly romance with gal pal Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi).
Blomkvist and his newspaper staff at Millennium, meanwhile, are planning a big exposé of Swedish sex trafficking. And Lisbeth’s court-appointed guardian — you remember, the one who brutally raped her in “Tattoo,” only to have the tables turned on him — is shopping for a contract killer to take Lisbeth out.
These two plotlines collide in the bluntest way, exposing the delicate and implausible tissue of connections among the characters. You would think there were only a few thousand people in all of Sweden, based on the high degree of coincidence here. Nevertheless, it’s all served up with a fair degree of matter-of-fact energy. Except, well, for two final problems. “Fire” introduces a platinum-blond, pain-immune villain (played by Micke Spreitz) who comes perilously close to being a 007 villain (of the overblown, late-Roger Moore period). His compatriot, the movie’s Big Bad, is a man named Zala, played by Georgi Staykov in bad burn makeup. The actor just isn’t impressive enough to embody the heart of darkness in Lisbeth’s backstory. It’s a bad mistake in casting.
Millennium Trilogy fans will want to see this movie regardless. It’s made with a great deal of competence (originally for Swedish television). But anyone who hasn’t read the first book or seen the movie version should approach with caution.
It’s a shame that novelist Larsson died so young and so unexpectedly in 2004. At their weakest, his books are airport-bookstore, page-turning trash. But he infused them with a sociopolitical awareness and a genuine rage against corruption that elevated them above the norm. He also pulled off something pretty remarkable: he built an engrossing series of novels focused on two people who, except in the first book, share only two scenes together. In other words, memorable characters who have already outlived him, and will continue doing so for a very long time.
On the other hand, Nora Ephron is pretty rude, very funny and on target in her recent New Yorker takedown of the books.
“The Girl Who Played With Fire.” With Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. Directed by Daniel Alfredson. In Swedish with subtitles. Rated R. 129 minutes. At Atlanta’s UA Tara Cinema and Lefont Sandy Springs.