The first film versions of late Swedish author Stieg Larsson's audaciously successful "Millennium" mystery/thriller series — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, released in the U.S. earlier this year, and The Girl Who Played With Fire, opening in Memphis this week — are essentially garish pulp thrillers that aspire to something more serious, in the vein of The Silence of the Lambs.
But unlike Lambs author Thomas Harris' series of page-to-screen hits, which foisted serial-killer chic and Hannibal Lecter on us, Larsson's work introduces a new pop-culture figure more worthy of icon status.
As portrayed by Noomi Rapace in both films (as well as in the forthcoming The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), Larsson protagonist Lisbeth Salander is a memorable, charismatic figure. The wiry, petite heroine is an androgynous figure who looks something like a blend of Joan of Arc, young Jackie Earle Hailey, and Run, Lola, Run.
After establishing Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, she becomes a Jason Bourne-like figure in The Girl Who Played With Fire — on the lam, pursued, hiding in plain sight, forced to fight back.
The Girl Who Played With Fire burrows into the tormented Salander back-story only hinted at in the first film, spinning off the plot-starting murder of a pair of journalists set to uncover government complicity in a sex-trafficking operation, with Salander's fingerprints found on the murder weapon.
The real theme of both films is misogynistic violence, with Fire slightly less graphic in its depiction of these crimes than Dragon Tattoo. Salander is an avenging angel taking on bad men. Appropriately, her weapons of choice are a can of mace, a taser, a big chip on her shoulder, and a bigger brain.
Larsson's novels must be densely plotted, because even with their two-plus-hour run times, these films feel a little shoddy as procedurals. You can sense the characters and connections left out, and the films' directors (Niels Arden Oplev in the first film, Daniel Alfredson here) don't help with their struggle to make the paper trail compelling.
The Girl Who Played With Fire is perhaps a little less satisfying as a mystery/thriller than the first in strictly genre terms, but it is ultimately more compelling in its increased focus on Lisbeth and its welcome move from a wintry family estate to an in-and-around Stockholm setting of which the film makes good use.
The Girl Who Played With Fire
Opening Friday, August 13th