Thursday, July 8, 2010

She plays with fire and keeps series burning

She's back and badder than ever.

It's amazing how quickly novelty becomes normative in a culture that thrives on saturation. When we first met Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, she sprang from the screen with startling freshness, quite an accomplishment for a character familiar to millions from the trio of best-selling Swedish books that revolve around her.

Bisexual and burdened by a troubled past, Lisbeth had been officially declared incompetent, an ironic twist because she's also a genius, a computer whiz who can hack into any system, penetrating even the most secure walls of privacy. Played with single-minded determination by Noomi Rapace, Lisbeth seemed like someone we hadn't seen before; even her sexual encounters felt extreme, like well-planned military campaigns.

Several months later - with the release of The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second in author Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy - Lisbeth already has become a bit of a stock figure in the popular imagination. Don't blame Rapace's performance, which continues its display of flinty, relentless will. Blame cultural ubiquity, the tendency for our most popular fictions to become instantly inescapable.

So far, neither movie totally has lived up to its source material, but Dragon, I believe, came closer than Fire. Still, the second installment boasts enough twists and turns to hold interest and make Girl Who Played With Fire an intelligent and sometimes riveting must-see for devotees. And, no, I'm not sure the second movie makes much sense if you haven't seen the first or read the novels.

Perhaps to keep the story from feeling formulaic, Part II departs from the first helping by keeping Lisbeth and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) apart, although they're obviously traveling in the same direction. Lisbeth must evade capture until Blomkvist can prove that she's not a triple murderer.

If disappointment begins to bubble beneath the surface, it's worth reminding ourselves of the brilliant way in which the late Larsson flipped the neo-noir script. In most noir dramas, the hero is a guy, and Blomkvist qualifies for the role. He's a smart, hard-bitten journalist who's been around the block. Larsson wisely puts the best cards in Lisbeth's hands. Half the time, Blomkvist races just to keep up.

Fire deftly conflates two aims: To give us a complicated mystery and to disclose more about Lisbeth's disturbing background. By the end of Fire, we understand more about how Lisbeth evolved into an emotionally distant techie genius who can't seem to abide lasting intimacy.

Director Daniel Alfredson and writer Jonas Fryberg (not the writer/director team of the first installment) advance the story, setting us up for the final installment, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, and introducing some interesting new secondary characters, one a frightening blond behemoth of a man who looks as if he popped in from the set of a Bond movie.

Fire creates tension between misogyny and eroticism in much the same way as the original, but it's Lisbeth who keeps the wheels turning with Rapace suggesting every bit of her character's intelligence, emotional wariness and remarkable strength. Those who are hooked should find themselves wrapped in Fire's well-woven web of intrigue, crime and devilish perversity.

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