Review: “The Girl Who Played with Fire” (2010)
WARNING: SPÖILERS II
After everything she went through in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” from subway attacks to rape, it’s a shame to see Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) get worse in “The Girl Who Played with Fire.” I don’t mean being shot and buried alive by her own father. I mean having to wear a New York Yankees sweatshirt and cap. Ick.
“Fire” starts out where “Tattoo” left off. Lisbeth is abroad, living in comfort by the peaceful sea, with the money she nicked from the bad guys. But she finds no peace. She has nightmares about her father, who abused her and her mother until she set him on fire when she was 12. That act resulted in incarceration in mental institutions, and a legal-guardian arrangement (specific to Sweden?) administered, first, by the sharp, sympathetic Holger Palmgren (Per Oscarsson), and then, when Holger suffered a stroke, by the horrific and misogynistic Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), who rapes Lisbeth in “Tattoo” but gets his: she sodomizes him with a dildo and tattoos on his fat white stomach: “I am a sadistic pig and a rapist.” It’s even longer in Swedish.
From her seaside villa, Lisbeth uses her computer hacking skills to track Bjurman and realizes: 1) he’s not submitting the necessary monthly reports on her that will keep the authorities off her dragon-tattooed back, and 2) he’s looking into tattoo removal. So she returns to Stockholm and confronts him at midnight with his own gun. Submit the reports, she tells him. And keep the tattoo.
What she doesn’t know is that someone has already contacted him about her.
In the meantime, at Millennium magazine... Hey, what’s with Millennium anyway? It’s supposed to be one of the last bastions of a relevant print publication in an online world, yet the oldsters leading it, from our man Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to his lover, Erika Berger (Lena Endre), are super cautious about everything. They meet a kid, Dag Svensson (Hans Christian Thulin), who’s doing an investigative piece on human trafficking and prostitution in Sweden, and he has evidence that links many of these women to public officials, and he’s already done interviews with some of these public officials. Yet the Millennium staff only cautiously welcome him aboard for a two-month assignment? Grow a pair already.
At the same time, one wonders how much of an exclusive Dag actually has, since his girlfriend, Mia, has just published a treatise on the topic. We see the two planning to celebrate its publication by going on vacation. From my notes: “They look young and happy. They’re dead.”
Indeed. Two minutes later, Blomkvist finds them shot in their apartment. The weapon belongs to a lawyer, Nils Bjurman, and the only fingerprints belong to one Lisbeth Salander. When Bjurman is found dead, too, an APB goes out for Lisbeth’s arrest. Quaintly, and oddly for a computer hacker, Lisbeth first discovers this through a kind of “Wanted” poster stapled to a lightpost, then through print newspapers, and only lastly via something called the World Wide Web. It’s like we’re back in 1995.
By this point we’ve already been introduced to some of the bad guys, particularly a stoic, blonde brute named Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), who recalls the Russian villain in “From Russia With Love.” We see him fight Lisbeth’s sometime-lover, kickboxer Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi), as well as middleweight boxer Paulo Roberto (a real figure in Sweden, who plays himself), and Neidermann takes care of both handily. Despite their skills, their blows have no effect on him. Watching, I recalled a documentary about kids who suffer from the genetic defect analgesia, who literally feel no pain, (the doc is called “A Life without Pain,” and it is, no pun intended, painful and heartbreaking), and I wondered if that wasn’t Niedermann’s secret. It is. It's just not heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, Blomquvist has taken up where Dag left off, tracking down johns, but he’s doing it less for the article than to help clear Lisbeth. From one john he gets a name, Zala, and a story. Zala is a merciless, former top agent with the U.S.S.R. who defected to Sweden in the mid-1970s, and was thus protected by the Swedish national police and its intermediaries, including Nils Bjurman. Good start.
So what is our heroine, Lisbeth, doing while her friends are investigating for her and risking their lives for her? Not much. She's all third act, when she confronts Zala and his henchman, Niedermann, in a remote cabin. Zala, the man running the East European prostitution ring, turns out to be Alexander Zalachenko, who turns out to be, a la “Star Wars,” her father, who got played with fire, while Niedermann turns out to be her half-brother. In the end it's all about her.
Lisbeth is a stoic figure who keeps the world at a distance—one of the lessons she learns in “Fire,” in fact, is about letting people in (Blomqvist literally)—so Rapace doesn’t always have a lot to do acting-wise. But I love how alive her eyes become when she confronts her father. Does she enjoy seeing him? Or does she enjoy seeing him diminished? There’s a fierce intelligence in her. “I know you,” she seems to be thinking. “And you don’t scare me any more.”
He should. That night, father and half-brother lead her to a shallow grave. Blomqvist, we know, is making his way toward her and the remote cabin, and, used to the tropes of movies, we wonder when he’s going to arrive to rescue her. I’d clearly forgotten my heroines. Trying to escape, Lisbeth is shot twice by her father, dragged back by her half-brother, and buried alive. I’m on the edge of my seat. Where’s Blomqvist?
Cut to: Blomqvist, at dawn, looking at a map, his automobile pulled off to the side of the road. I nearly laughed out loud. Poor bastard.
Lisbeth isn’t just the girl with the dragon tattoo, or the one who played with fire, or the one who will kick the hornet’s nest in the next movie; she’s the girl who doesn’t need rescuing. She rescues. The movie conventions of 100 years are upended in her.
Thus, after being shot twice and buried alive, Lisbeth digs her way out using the cigarette case Miriam gave her at the beginning of the film, then takes an axe to her father’s head, then scares off Niedermann with her father’s gun. Which is when Blomqvist, the caring man, forever inconsequential in a fight, finally shows up.
Most of “Fire” disappointed me. The plot about the East European sex-slave trade is more-or-less forgotten, as are Lisbeth’s computer hacking skills, while there’s nothing nearly so engrossing as the mystery of the first film: the disappearance of Harriet Vanger and all of those girls. Here, we get no mystery. There’s a bad guy. His name is Zala. Hey, there he is! Worse, for most of the film we’re ahead of both Blomqvist (since we know about Nils Bjurman) and Lisbeth (since we find out about Niedermann’s analgesia). It’s not much fun waiting for your protagonists to catch up with you.
But my girlfriend loved the movie. When I asked why, she talked about how tough Lisbeth was, how calm she remained in battle, and how she wished she could be like her. Lisbeth is wish-fulfillment for women the way Bruce Willis is for men. I like that. I like having a female wish-fulfillment who doesn’t depend on a man, or a dress, or a pair of Manolo Blahniks.
Just lose the Yankees cap, Lisbeth. The Yankees are corporate and imperialist. You’re much more of a Pittsburgh Pirates girl.