Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Lisbeth Salander Returns: The Girl Who Played with Fire

America loves androgynous goth Swedish computer hackers. After topping bestseller lists as the protagonist Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, Lisbeth Salander became a breakout art-house hit with the release of Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Following close on the heels of the U.S. publication of the third Millennium novel, Salander returns to theaters in Daniel Alfredson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

After the dramatic events of Tattoo, Salander has essentially dropped out of normal society. Grateful to Salander for clearing his name, Millennium publisher (and former friend with benefits) Mikael Blomkvist periodically makes an effort to find her, but to no avail. However, their fates again become intertwined when Salander is implicated in the murder of Dag Svensson, a young Millennium freelancer working on a blockbuster expose of human trafficking.

It seems Svensson’s story involved several people from Salander’s past, including her former court-appointed guardian, with whom she had a disturbingly graphic altercation in the previous film. Not exactly a warm fuzzy personality, everyone seems all too willing to accept Salander’s guilt, except Blomkvist, the perennial windmill tilter.

While Fire clearly establishes characters and issues for the forthcoming third installment, it is more or less self-contained, so viewers should be able to jump into it just fine without having first seen Tattoo. In fact, as a tighter, less explicit film, it might be more accessible for many viewers. It is also less overtly political, despite Larsson’s notorious leftist politics. However, Tattoo’s serial killer storyline rooted in Sweden’s sinister history of widespread Nazi sympathizing, was arguably a wider canvas with greater stakes at play than the more narrowly focused Fire.

Although Hollywood is gearing up to remake the Millennium trilogy, it is hard to imagine any other actors in the lead roles. Noomi Rapace perfectly captures Salander’s strange allure while also conveying the emotional maelstrom contained beneath her icy exterior. While much of the press for the Millennium films understandably centers on her, Michael Nyqvist is nearly as indispensible to the series. Like a Nordic Harrison Ford, he brings a salt of the earth screen presence to Blomkvist that keeps the film grounded for the audience, effectively counterbalancing Salander’s occasional creepiness. Good luck Daniel Craig and Kristin Stewart, or whoever.

Slickly produced, Fire might not match either the intensity or the unsettling explicitness of the first Millennium movie, but Alfredson still keeps it all chugging along quite briskly. Indeed, Fire is a solid, respectable sophomore outing for Salander, probably the most intriguing screen protagonist to ever wield a laptop and a stun-gun. It opens fairly widely this Friday (2/9), screening in New York at the Angelika Film Center, Empire 25, and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.