All ye who enter the jaundiced world of the late writer Stieg Larsson, cast aside all notions of Sweden as the snow-draped kingdom of Volvos, IKEA and swimsuit models.
In the grounded-in-reality Sweden conjured up in Larsson’s cult Millennium Trilogy novels, there are white supremacists, corrupt cops, prostitution rackets, corporate crimes and enough sexual violence to fuel the plotlines of several seasons of CSI. In crafting his conspiratorial literary world, Larsson drew from his own media brushes with Swedish neo-Nazis and white-collar criminals to fashion his taut thrillers of punk-rock waif Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and her lefty helpmate Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) fighting the forces of evil in Sweden.
Larsson has fashioned the unlikeliest pair of crime fighters in this scruffy journalist and computer-hacker gamine, but it’s hard not to love such an eccentric pair of fearless do-gooders. Larsson’s first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—adapted to film with great panache and a sustained sense of dread by Niels Arden Oplev—saw the damaged, much-abused Lisbeth and her sometimes lover Mikael go after a coven of Swedish aristocrats with Nazi sympathies and a taste for incest and serial murder.
In director Daniel Alfredson’s adaptation of the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, the grotesque underbelly of exploitation and sadism within a Swedish family in the first film gives way to something along the lines of a police procedural. The film deepens the sense of many of Larsson’s characters as marked people: tattooed, carved up, burned or disfigured in some way to express past torments.
But Fire is more macro than micro, focusing on a Swedish establishment of judges, cops and lawyers who share a predilection for underage Russian prostitutes and circumventing justice. Some of the tormentors from Dragon return, such as the sadistic lawyer Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson). But there are new, more James Bond heavies, too, such as a Dolph Lundgren-style, towheaded goliath who specializes in roughing up women and has his eye on Lisbeth. Such details, unfortunately, give Fire the feel of a TV cop show, albeit one with the feistiest, butt-kickingest heroine on record, whose most powerful weapon is her nimble mind.
Viewers will undoubtedly have to be deeply invested in the Larsson troika to stick with a plot that begins with the revelation of a labyrinthine sex trafficking conspiracy and then suddenly veers into an unatmospheric conspiracy plot that involves ghosts from Lisbeth’s past. The Girl Who Played with Fire digs deeper into the childhood events that fuel Lisbeth’s fire and suggest that her thirst to do in all dastardly men originates in some daddy issues of her own.