Two journalists on the verge of exposing their story in the political magazine Millennium about an extensive sex trafficking operation between Eastern Europe and Sweden are brutally murdered. The key suspect is Lisbeth Salander, the troubled, wise-beyond-her-years genius hacker, whose finger prints are found on the murder weapon.
Mikael Blomkvist, Millennium's publisher and former disgraced journalist who befriended Salander during a previous investigation, is alone in his belief in Salander's innocence and swiftly plunges into an examination of the slayings which will implicate highly placed members of Swedish society, business and government. Fully aware that Salander is fierce when fearful, he is desperate to get to her before she is cornered and alone but she is nowhere to be found.
Digging deeper, Blomkvist also unearths some heart-wrenching facts about Salander's past life. Committed to psychiatric care at age 12, declared legally incompetent at 18, she is the product of an unjust and corrupt system.
Meanwhile, the elusive Salander herself is drawn into a murderous hunt in which she is the prey, and which compels her to revisit her dark past.
(spoilers!) The last we saw our heroine, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), she was walking off into the sunset wearing a blonde wig in an undisclosed tropical land with millions in her bank account. 'The Girl Who Played with Fire' picks up a year later and reveals she still resides on this exotic coastal world, walking around naked in a big, luxurious home. Soon after, she discovers, via her extraordinary hacking skills that her former guardian Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson) has been researching tattoo removal. Lisbeth quickly reacts, purchasing an apartment in Stockholm and returning home to Sweden. This is all done in a matter of only a few minutes with a pace and tone that the filmmakers maintain throughout the film — a fast and intense sequel that will expose a deep secret in our punk heroine's past.
'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' was a methodical and suspenseful murder mystery, exceptionally executed by Niels Arden Oplev and based on the first book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. That film took its time piecing clues together, each revelation came to the protagonists as well as the audience. It allowed viewers to digest the information as it became available, piling on the complexity in an unsolved case involving a wealthy and powerful family. Daniel Alfredson, older brother to Tomas of 'Let the Right One In' fame, takes over as director for this second adaptation. And he delivers an exciting, "blink and you'll miss it" tale where Lisbeth is accused of murdering a journalist, his girlfriend, and her guardian Bjurman. In her quest to exonerate herself, mostly from behind her computer, she discovers she must confront her past if she wants any sort of future.
'The Girl Who Played with Fire' moves at a breakneck speed that's both refreshing and interestingly disjointed — not too confusing but sometimes difficult to keep up. It jumps from one clue to the next and forces the audience to pay really close attention as suspicions and plot points are quickly plastered onto the screen. On the one hand, this makes for a great thriller with a surprisingly entertaining twist at the end. On the other, the film doesn't quite live up to its predecessor because the plot seems focused on keeping the intensity high rather than on delivering an engaging mystery story. That's not to say the movie is bad because it's actually a fairly good adventure with an incredibly unlikely hero. It also keeps Lisbeth and her background as the central attraction, the primary reason for us coming back.
Instead, the issue is with the movie feeling a bit like a potboiler, intent on only providing the core of the novel it's based on, whereas 'Dragon Tattoo' actually highlighted the important themes expressed within its source and captured that mood. Now, I'm not suggesting one must read the books beforehand, or even make a comparison between the two. That's just silly. What I'm referring to is that 'Played with Fire' lacks that sense of investigative journalism which made the first film richly interesting and fascinating. Mikael Blomkvist's (Michael Nyqvist) crusade to absolve his friend of murder charges is greatly simplified, and the subplot of exposing a government conspiracy in human trafficking is glossed over while the connection with Zala (Georgi Staykov) is not entirely clear. Also, the narrative discards some important plot elements for the sake of reaching the end quicker. For all its positives, Alfredson's movie comes with some hiccups that can't be ignored and it ultimately leaves us feeling as though there's a longer version out there somewhere.
But as mentioned earlier, the one thing the film does right without fail is keeping our attention on this being Lisbeth's story and about her troubled past. More importantly is Rapace's amazing performance in one the most challenging roles since Daniel Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview or Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh. While the latter two are naturally villains, the difficulties are the same in portraying unlikeable characters that audiences are willing to invest time with. Rapace is a marvelous actress, successfully making an angry, volatile individual seem authentic and sympathetic. Lisbeth is a young woman with a tendency for reactionary violence and the world's biggest chip on her shoulder, yet we want to learn more about her and even side with her during her moments of vengeance. Rapace is remarkable, and it's no easy task to repeat what's she's accomplished.
'The Girl Who Played with Fire' is an entertaining and suspenseful film that doesn't quite live up to its predecessor but expands further on the Lisbeth Salander character. By the end, the set up for a third installment is made fairly clear since everything that's just been discovered must now be dealt with. Our hero has entered a new fight for her life, one she is obviously unprepared for because the person she is — her personality, origins, and perception of the world — will be called into question. Her next challenge is how to respond to all that in the most effective and even constructive manner. But in getting to know her as we have by the end of this sequel, it will definitely make for some explosive drama.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Girl Who Played with Fire' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Music Box Films and is housed in a standard blue keepcase. At startup, the Region Free, BD25 disc shows a series of skippable previews for 'Mesrine,' 'The Sicilian Girl,' 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest,' 'OSS: Lost in Rio,' and 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.' Once over, viewers are greeted with the typical set of menu options.
'The Girl Who Played with Fire' debuts with a good but not wholly satisfying 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (1.85:l) encode. Supposedly, the movie was shot on Super 16mm, but according to IMDb.com, it was filmed on standard 35mm. Unable to confirm which is accurate, we can't say one way or another on the source used for this Blu-ray. But based on looks alone, the video transfer sure does feel like a 16mm presentation.The grain structure is heavy and consistent throughout, and black levels are accurate and deep, but they never truly shine. Shadow delineation could be better, but background info remains visible in the darker portions of the picture. Contrast runs somewhat hotter than normal, so highlights tend to be overblown in several scenes though it never really ruins the image. Fine object details are strong and nicely defined, but the best moments are in close-ups, which reveal distinct texture on clothing and facial complexions. Colors appear natural, yet they fall more on the average side and sometimes bleed, especially red.
Overall, it's a good-looking picture for an entertaining film, but it's also greatly limited by its source.
As with its predecessor, Music Box Films offers only two Dolby Digital soundtracks: one in the native Swedish and the other an English dub. And while a higher resolution option is preferred, at least this lossy mix is not a complete loss.
This is a front-heavy presentation with most of the action shared between the left and right channels. Dynamic range is clean and pleasant although the upper frequencies are never really pushed hard. The low end also feels a bit anemic, yet it had its moments to give certain scenes some weight. Being a dialogue-driven film, character interaction and vocals are intelligible, even during whispered conversations. The real surprise comes from the lack of activity in the rears. The track simply doesn't lend itself well to all the channels, so it never provides a real sense of presence or attracts the audience in an engaging manner. All in all, 'The Girl Who Played with Fire' arrives with an average audio presentation.
'The Girl Who Played with Fire' arrives on Blu-ray as a barebones release, unless we take into account the same set of Theatrical Trailers mentioned above. For fans of the series and the movie, this is a crying shame.
The second installment in the adventures of a highly-volatile young woman delivers a fast-paced thriller that demands viewers pay close attention. Otherwise, one might miss something and become completely lost. As in the last film, Noomi Rapace is a talented actress, turning Lisbeth Salander into a fascinating and likable character, and she remains the best reason to keep watching. The Blu-ray is a barebones release with a good but not great audio and video presentation. Overall, the package will likely only attract fans with little to make it a worthwhile purchase.