So once again we have survived.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

tn_girlwhoplayedwithfireAfter THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO I was real excited to see what would happen in the next installment. The second one starts with a flashback to the Netherlands in the 17th century. Scarlett Johansson plays a maid who goes to work for the famed painter Vermeer (Colin Firth). He finds out she’s interested in art so he starts teaching her how to mix paints. I really wasn’t sure what this had to do with Lisbeth Salander and I was kind of bored so I turned off THE GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING and skipped to THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE.

mp_girlwhoplayedwithfireRemember Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the girl with the dragon tattoo? She’s also the girl who played with fire, as revealed at the end of that movie. Seems like that title survived the Swedish-to-English conversion better than the other one because I still don’t get the significance of her having that big-ass tattoo, but I do understand how she played with fire both literally and figuratively and how those events are central both to the plot of this movie specifically and to the formation of her character in general. Plus it sounds cooler. Two less syllables. Sleeker, more aerodynamic.

Lisbeth is a computer genius, an expert researcher, and sort of hates men, for good reasons. She pouts alot, has three nose rings, enjoys the company of women, has a photographic memory and knows how to drive a motorcycle (those last two skills, established in the first movie, each come up once in this movie and it’s cool because you think “yeah, she does know how to do that, I remember that.”) In this one we also learn that she trained as a boxer since she was a teen. She’s kind of a super hero but instead of patrolling for muggers she has a crusade to fight back at the “sadistic pigs and rapists” that she encounters. So appropriately her main weapons are standard women’s self defense: pepper spray, stun gun, kick to the balls.

“Star reporter” Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is back, he gets in some deep shit when he’s helping a young reporter with an exposee on sex traffickers and comes over to find the other journalist and his girlfriend executed. Lisbeth is in deeper shit though, because her fingerprints are on the gun. The best part of part 1 was the way she turned the tables on her parole officer/rapist, and that becomes important here. She threatens him again and he tries to have her taken out, which you figure might explain why she got set up. Except he gets killed too.

So Lisbeth is on the run Bourne or Salt style, trying not to be seen, using her smarts, computer know-how and passion for terrorizing men to figure out what’s going on and how to clear her name. So she doesn’t get to rock a mohawk in this one. Disguises include Pretty Blonde (long blonde wig) and Young Boy (grey hoodie, backpack and Yankees cap). She has to take on some bikers and a big blond motherfucker who doesn’t feel pain (Dolph, please report to the American remake).

Meanwhile Mikael is on the case too, using his dead colleague’s sources and his magazine’s investigative skills. Lisbeth remotely breaks into his laptop and scours all its files (thank God he doesn’t keep a bunch of porn on there), leaves messages in text documents on his desk top.

That’s what I thought was really cool about this one: the two heroes from part 1 reunite without actually uniting. In fact (SPOILER) they never see each other until the very end, by which point (SUPER SPOILER) Lisbeth is covered in blood and barely conscious and can’t say anything to him. Yet they work together and in some ways become more close than before – for example Mikael finds out what happened to her (in fact he sees the video).

There are other people in her life: her old boxing trainer, her ex Miriam Wu (who we first know must be into martial arts because she subscribes to Kung Fu Magazine), her stroke-stricken former P.O. With the exception of the P.O., who she visits in the rest home, she’s not close with any of them, but they get pulled into this thing where their fighting skills and knowledge come in handy, like they’re part of her Mission Impossible team.

There’s a girl she uses for sex and for occupying the apartment she doesn’t really live in. She’s not exactly sensitive to that girl’s needs and doesn’t seem to care about her too much. It’s the guy she hasn’t seen since the last movie, who obviously yearns for her but can’t have her, who she thanks for being her friend. (doesn’t say nothing about traveling around the world and back again, what would happen if he threw a party, etc.) I get the idea that to her he’s the one true friend, that this is her strongest relationship, even though it’s from a distance. Solving mysteries with him from an empty apartment.

I know these movies and books are a huge world wide phenomenon, but somehow I don’t know anybody that’s into them. I was talking to one guy about it, he says “I heard they were pretty rapey.” I guess there’s some truth to that, and I get it – rape is a real bum out that kills the entertainment factor in most movies. When you recommend RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to somebody you don’t have to say, “Just to warn you, he does get brutally raped early on. But don’t worry, overall it’s a fun movie.”

The rape in question is in the first movie, and it’s not the key event like in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. But it’s absolutely crucial to the character of Lisbeth – she survives abusive men in childhood and in the system. So when she comes back at them we know she’s not overreacting. If we didn’t know what Lisbeth has been through we might have a problem with her showing up in a guy’s house wearing scary face paint, enhanced-interrogating him and leaving him hanging from a noose when his teenage daughter gets home. She’s the Woman Who Hates Men Who Hate Women. What they did to her made her this way, and they will live to regret it. At least they will live for a certain amount of time to regret it.

I think that’s why she’s such a cool character. She’s a woman who survives and avenges and spits on your grave but also solves mysteries, accesses top secret files, holds her own in a scrap, looks good on a motorcycle and evades capture by the authorities. She’s the Final Girl meets Jason Bourne with a dash of Shaft and a sprinkle of the girl from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3 who has the switchblades and mohawk in her dreams.

In the first story (movie version at least) it was this great character that stood out more than it was the elaborate mystery about elderly Nazis she helped unravel. So in this one it’s nice that the mystery revolves around her, and allows her to take on villains that more directly apply to her: sex traffickers and important people from her past. Actually it turns out they might be the ones playing with fire here.

I like Lisbeth Salander. I look forward to seeing what happens when she deals with this bee problem in part 3.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010 at 11:18 pm and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

38 Responses to “The Girl Who Played With Fire”

  1. Vern: I’m pretty sure the girl she stashed in her apartment IS Miriam! And I wouldn’t say Lisbeth “uses” her for sex or house-sitting: she’s just borderline autistic. Their lovemaking scene was too sweet for what you surmise, methinks.

    But it’s also possible I’m in love with Lisbeth. I admit to that possible certainty!

  2. I liked parts 2 and 3 better than part 1 (or at least I don’t understand why they’re being rated so much lower by those who have seen them) which seems like the opposite reaction to most. But I feel like 2 and 3 tell one continuous story, which would be complete if you tacked on about 20 minutes from part 1. The rest of part 1 is some weird shit about Nazis that doesn’t seem to have much to do with much. Also I feel like parts 2 and 3 embrace the pulpier aspects of the stories, they’re comfortable with who they are and don’t seem too eager to be mistaken as high art or anything. Also I like everything to do with the big blonde motherfucker, fighting that guy seems like it would be like fighting a tree trunk.

    So I looked up some reviews and tried to figure out why parts 2 and 3 apparently aren’t as good as the 1st, and the most common complaint I came up with is “I wanted to see Lisbeth and Mikael together and they’re separated too much”. Some people even wanted to see their “romantic relationship continue to develop”! Whereas it was pretty clear to me that was just a quick platonic hump and it better serves the theme of this story (that’s called MEN WHO HATE WOMEN in it’s native language) for Lisbeth to be more attracted to the ladies. But as you point out, they’re still working together for most of the movie and having ripple effects on each other’s lives from afar. There’s another common complaint about part 3 I found but I won’t mention that one because you haven’t seen it. But basically I think it comes down to not knowing what the last installment of a series is supposed to do.

    Anyway I think all three movies are just solid little genre flicks. Nothing to start getting all gushy over, but also nothing to get too worked up hating.

  3. Yeah, the criticism seems to be ‘the film would be ten minutes long if these two would actually just speak to each other on the phone’. I remember reading a review of Blood Simple that said the same thing. I don’t really get it, unless the critics in question are yearning for ten minute long films that get everything wrapped up before you’ve even settled in.

    The bad guy in this one is great. I like the confused expression on his face when anyone punches him.

  4. And THE LORD OF THE RINGS would be 10 minutes long if they hopped on one of those eagles instead of fuckin walking. It’s called a story!

  5. Ah man, why didn’t they think of that? It would’ve saved me eight hours in the cinema. Stupid hobbits.

  6. Here in Scandinavia it’s seems I’m the only one who isn’t that into Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, and the main reason for that (beside the fact that the books are rather badly written) is the Salander figure. For years Norwegian and Swedish middle aged, radical male writers have used a Salander type character who helps the middle aged, radical male lead (and more often than not end up shagging him at some point), and in real life they simply do not exist. It’s an unrealistic figure that don’t belong in a realistic thriller. Sorry.
    I think the reason that the first movie has gotten better reviews than the other two is the fact that it was made as a proper movie, while the other two where made for television and simply didn’t look as good on the big screen.

  7. pegsman speaks the truth.

  8. Wasn’t it implied or George Lucas had said somewhere that Indy had had an inappropriate relationship with Marion when she was young or something though

  9. What I like about the 2nd and 3rd movies is they are basically dealing with the fallout from the shitstorm they kicked up in the first movie. You don’t often see a trilogy that has that dynamic. Normally the second and 3rd movies are “oh shit we need a sequel now” type deals.

    What I miss about the first movie is the creepy misty island and creepy old nazis that gave that movie its own flavour and style. The next two movies have the style of the bits of the first movie where they’re not on the island – i.e. plain old regular non-creepy-nazi-island Sweden.

    Maybe they could have given the bad guy a secret volcano hideaway in the 2nd one and maybe a moonbase in the 3rd one. Or maybe have them go to Norway.

  10. Well Pegsman, I think if you look at most books where the middle-aged writer uses a version of himself for the hero you’ll find that creepy wish fulfillment at play where the author’s surrogate gets to bang the untouchable female. Nothing new there. And yes I know there is no such person as Lisbeth, but that is what makes these pulpy over written books worth reading. She is not a typical type of character I’m used to seeing and some of the action in the book is pretty cool. That’s where the made for TV budget lets down THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE. The big scene (SPOILER) in the warehouse with the boxer, the kidnapped girl and the blond giant is a highlight of the books, but is a real letdown in the film. I don’t think the books are well written, but if you can get past the authors desire to show off how socially aware he is, there are some nice action set pieces and some interesting characters to populate them, and that’s better then a lot of the dire best sellers out there.

  11. pegsman – Uh, isn’t the whole point of fiction in creating characters who don’t exist in real life? That’s why it called fiction, I guess.

    The Salander-type protagonist isn’t the solitary property of Scandinavian writers – one could find many parallels between her and, say, River from Firefly/Serenity (and the score of other heroines written by Joss Whedon and/or played by Summer Glau).

    But Larsson writes this character extremely well in his books – sure, they can be plodding when dealing with other issues, but Salander chapters are perfect streamlined noir fiction on par with Donald Westlake’s Parker novels (which too lose their awesomeness when focusing on people other than Parker himself).

    And I would hardly call any movie that feature a fight between a World Champion boxer and a huge blond Frankenstein monster who couldn’t feel pain “a realistic thriller”.

    But totally agree with you on the whole TV aspect of the sequels – they sure look like cheap crap and I had to force myself to sit through the first half of THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE. Was glad I did, though.

  12. I’m a little shocked that the sequels to a successful movie, in themselves the adaptation of bestselling novels were relegated to TV movies. Anyone know why? Were not talking about Tony Danza an Valerie Bertandernie here…

  13. You can’t tell me that the big bald dude in RAIDERS wasn’t all about the rape. Look at the way he takes off his shirt and smiles before walking out to the plane to confront Harrison Ford.

    The German dude in the leather coat was more than a bit rapey too. And the Sea Captain was all about the rape. Or at least he pretended to be in order to trick whitey.

    Also, I’m pretty sure that Alfred Molina was raped before the Natives killed him.

  14. Jaretth, are you implying it should have been Indiana Jones and the Rapers of the Lost Ark?

  15. Darth: If SOUTH PARK is to be believed, it’s Spielberg and Lucas who are the RAPERS OF THE LOST ARK.

  16. Parker. Marion was fifteen when she had her fling with Indy. Raiders was ten years later. Thats why Abner Ravenwood got rid of Indy. The nonce.

  17. “That’s what I thought was really cool about this one: the two heroes from part 1 reunite without actually uniting.”

    That’s what I really disliked about PLAYED WITH FIRE, actually. I enjoyed the first film quite a bit, even if I think it was a tad overrated, and a major part of that was because of the relationship and interaction between Mikael and Lisbeth. The who time in part 2 I kept waiting and waiting for them to meet up, but until the final scene all you really get are some brief text messages and shit. The real emotional core of the first film, and it’s not developed, furthered, explored or even rehashed at all during the sequel.

    I still like the characters enough, and have enough residual goodwill leftover from the first film, that I’m planning on seeing KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST this weekend. I’m hoping, since this one ends kinda cliffhanger-y, that FIRE will seem better in retrospect once I see how all the subplots and whatnot payoff in the final film. But from what I’ve read, HORNET is a long, talky, and mainly a courtroom drama, so I’m keeping my expectations in check.

  18. Am I the only one who had a problem with the big, blonde, super-villain bad guy?
    He seemed more like something out of a cartoon and threw me out of sync with the whole movie.
    And the *spoiler* Barn scene with Lisbet and the boxer guy felt like something silly out of an Austin Powers movie.. *Hahaaa I’ve knocked these fuckers out, but insted of just killing them on the spot I’m gonna count on them being out cold while I go outside, lock the barn, set fire to it, and walk away without making sure they don’t wake up and get out on the backside or whatever!*

    Granted that my recollection of the events might not be 100% spot on, I had some trouble taking it seriously and paying attention to it after the blondie showed up with his Kick-ass like superpower of no pain.

  19. I just didn’t understand why the taser didn’t work on the big, blonde guy. I get that he doesn’t feel pain, but shouldn’t his muscle still seize up (or something) from the electricity?

  20. Darth Irritable – “the adaptation of bestselling novels were relegated to TV movies. Anyone know why?”

    Sweden ran out of money?

  21. Eklund – Yeah, that barn thing was pretty fucking stupid. In the book they actually kicked the invincible guy’s ass and knocked him out with the log or something.

  22. Sweden ran out of money. I love it – Sweden as the AOL of Europe!

  23. Swedes are big. It must cost a fortune to feed and clothe that country.

  24. Darth Irritable and roachboy and/or anyone who cares:
    All these films are in fact 6 episodes 90 min a piece that aired on Swedish television last spring. They were cut down to movies as a half-afterthought. The difference in quality between films is rumored to come from the (rumored) fact that they planned throughout the entire process only to make a movie of the first book (two first episodes of said tv-series).

    I have sometimes on other blogs tried to raise awareness for the completely unexpected level of narrative superiority in the tv-series. But I have come to realize that this doesn’t matter, since it seems that no one outside Sweden will see it.

    And yeah, one of the cooler things about this film is that Paolo Roberto was in fact some sort of world champion of boxing, and now he plays himself, boxing a bond-type villain.

  25. Rock – you’re Swedish? Or just living there? What’s the general opinion in Sweden on the Fincher remake?

  26. doktor rock – Thanks for the info. Could you please give us a word on what’s the difference between the TV and the movie versions? I probably could find the series on some torrent tracker and watch them (subtitled or not) if they’re so much better.

    It’s surprising that they’re all produced for TV – the first one looks just like a real high-budget movie thriller… Guess it shows what a really good director can do.

  27. @doktor rock
    Paolo Roberto (boxer dude getting his ass kicked in the barn by super-villain blondie) is an ex-street fighter turned actor in ‘stockholmsnatt’ [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092015/] and from there on to hosting a shitload of silly crap on swedish television all the while trying to turn into a serious boxer but in the end got his ass kicked royally when the boxing thing really turned ‘serious’

  28. When are you going to review The Guy Who Fucked the Hornet’s Nest?

  29. The thing where the first part is a proper movie and the rest made for television is something they do with a lot of series both here in Norway and in Sweden. They’re often co produced by Norwegian and Swedish television, and I guess the cinema version serve as a commercial for the series. Paolo Roberto is a really cool guy. He’s a boxer and an actor, yes, but he’s also a mathematical genious. Not many of those around. No wonder Larsson used him in the book.

  30. @Darth: I’m Swedish. And I live here, so I was sleeping if someone was waiting for me to answer… I don’t think there is a general opinion about the Fincher remake in Sweden. It’s kind of wait-and-see, but I get the sense that the hype has passed its expiration date. Except a lot of people are excited about having Hollywood stars here filming.

    @roachboy: The difference between the first film and the tv-series is that you get more of a sense of where the story’s at in the series, because you spend more time with Blomqvist. He does a little more detectiving (I realize it’s not a word), and he has a little more sex. It never gets boring, because it keeps on intercutting pretty perfectly with Salander’s story. It becomes clear that Salander’s story arc is secondary, even though it’s more interesting. When I saw the first film I was thrown out of it by the relatively fast progression of the story vs. the slow pacing of the scenes (like – talking together in bed, repeating similar phrases a couple of times because no one had bothered to tighten up the script). The pacing worked better in the tv-series, and that made all the scenes work better for me. I generally don’t like extended editions, but I felt this exact same way about the LoTR extended editions a few years back, so if you disagree on those ones I guess you should be warned.

    I saw the series after the first film, and I took my friend’s words that the pacing differences were about the same in the other films vs. tv-series. So I never saw those films.

    I saw the movie Tic-Tac by Daniel Alfredson (the director of the two last films) earlier. He wasn’t bad there. I think it was more of a time-to-shoot issue in this case. It’s more likely that the reason you have films at all is that he was unexpectedly good at shooting his episodes for the tv-series.

    @Eklund: Yeah, I know. But Dolph hosted the eurovision song contest, and I still love Dolph. And in this case, it’s pretty fucking cool to have a bona-fide boxing champion getting his ass kicked in a part as himself.

  31. doktor rock – Thanks, I’ll try and find the series.

    I wonder if Fincher is going to cast Paolo Roberto in his movies… even though judging by THE SOCIAL NETWORK, it’ll probably be Justin Timberlake or someone like that.

  32. @Rock
    Didn’t mean any disrespect to the man, although I guess I did a poor job of hiding that I’m not a big fan of anything he’s done to date.
    Had no idea that he’s a “mathematical genius” though, like pegsman above mentioned

  33. I finally got around to watching the second film. Overall these are enjoyable, adult thrillers that have mysteriously vanished from the American cinema. Every once in a while a film like The Town comes around, but for whatever reason crime/mystery films are a dying breed over here. I was particularly impressed with the actress who plays Lisbeth. For most of the film she is absolutely silent, but we still understand what’s going on in her head, for the most part. As far as the remake goes, I’m not dreading it. These films are entertaining, but I’m not sure how excited I would be to see the same story twice, except maybe as an exercise in curiosity.

  34. OK, finally took this one in. Like everyone said, about twice as complicated as the first one and about half as satisfying.

    The thing that really bugs me, though — and this is one of those rare cases where I disagree with Vern — is that I felt like it was unnecessary to have the story revolve around her the way it does. Aside from being somewhat unbelievable, I think having everything happen directly to Lisbeth and revolve around her actually weakens what a strong, unique protagonist. Let her go to the story; we’ll still be interested if it doesn’t completely center on her and her life.

    Maybe I’m alone in feeling this; for instance, I got increasingly annoyed at the X-Files for upping the personal ante for Mulder and Scully (it’s not enough that they find this crazy conspiracy, it has to center around his father and his dna and him, personally). Why do authors feel the need to do this? If you’ve got great characters, just put them out in the world and watching them react will be enough. That’s the genius of the first one; it lets the characters evolve and grow as they navigate this plot which is not personally related to them. Here, the characters feel constrained by having their world shrink til they’re the only ones in it.

    What I’m saying is, Sherlock Holmes never had to find out the killer was actually his father and he had been the center of a vast conspiracy since childhood. Indiana Jones never had to discover an artifact which was actually his by divine right because of his ancient bloodline of heros. Philip Marlowe never (to my recollection) got to the end of an investigation only to realize he was actually persuing his own schitzophrenic alter-ego the whole time. Those authors had faith that we’d still be interested in the character without raising the stakes like that by making it personal. It was interesting enough to watch an awesome character have awesome adventures.

    Not a bad yarn, though. I like some aspects of it very much, and even sort of like the parallel paths the two leads take before finding each other again. Kinda bold. But HORNETS’ NEST, you better not dissapoint.

  35. Subtlety,

    I think you make a good point about how they make the story personal. I would have probably been more satisfied if Mikael and Lisbeth stumbled onto a new mystery to solve, instead of turning her backstory into some weird, cartoonishly exaggerated bunch of nonsense (her stepdad just happens to be some fearsome, psychopathic criminal with government connections AND a giant mutant freak sidekick? Really?) Part 3, unfortunately, just delves further into all this. It’s basically just 2 1/2 hours of exposition and backstory, and pays off all the subplots from part 2 in mainly unsatisfying ways.

  36. Aside from being hard to swallow, I think Lisbeth is a character that works best in her element; carefully controlling her little world and fastidiously keeping anyone else from knowing she exists. In PLAYED WITH FIRE, it seems like everyone in the country is after her, constantly talking about her, obsessing about her, framing her, protecting her. Rather than making the stakes feel higher, it makes Lisbeth seem smaller and less unique. Her unique character hardly plays into this at all; she becomes defined by the forces she’s facing rather then by her own odd personality. Most of the film might as well star Salt or any generic action star — and fittingly, the best parts don’t relate to the plot at all but instead focus on her strained relationship with the few people who actually matter in her life. Its little moments like watching her contemplate the cigarette case given to her by this woman she obviously has sort of conflicting feelings about becoming attached to, or her single, vulnerable line to Mikael in the whole film (expressed via text, and only when she’s sure he’s asleep and won’t respond). Maybe my favorite moment is when she’s amazed to see Mikael on video wander into her apartment. Its a great moment of uncertainty for her, as she decides –in a large part, fittingly, due to practical concerns — to let him into her life in a very literal way (and one that no one else gets to). She says nothing and yet Noomi Rapace’s face is this incredible mix of childlike embarrassment, feminine vulnerability, and warrior’s stoicism. I’m not sure director Daniel Alfredson or even Larsson himself exactly understand what makes Lisbeth unique, but Rapace makes sure that even when she’s stuck in a clumsy thriller plot, she sees the world through the eyes of this complex, fascinating character.

    SPOILERS!

    By the way, if I understood correctly, it’s not just that her father is a maniac uber-criminal mastermind with a sinister plan which unnecessarily involves framing his daughter, who’s beyond the law and able to do whatever he wants despite the fact that he seems to have only one employee who happens to be a super-powered mutant sidekick… that all makes sense. But then they have to go and say that the super-sidekick is her half-brother too! Is there anyone in all of Sweden who isn’t related to Lisbeth in some way? I was about to guess Blomkvist’s main squeeze is actually her mom. Maybe in the third one.

    The way I hear it he wrote most of a fourth book, so maybe that one will relax a little, dial back the plot escalation and not try to pile quite so much on. It looks like that’s what they’re trying with the new PotC film, thank god — and if Disney can do it, I think Lisbeth and Co. stand a good chance.

  37. I think you might, at least, enjoy the final scene from HORNET’S NEST, which ends on a character beat for Lisbeth and Mikael that strikes the properly not-entirely-satisfying-but-in-a-satisfying-way note. But it’s a long slog getting there, and you probably won’t be thrilled at how much deeper and Lisbeth-focused the conspiracy goes.

  38. Hey Vern! reading the book right now and came across a line…”Salander was the woman who hated men who hate women.” :) Just thought you’d like to know.

    (I’m under the impression that you haven’t read the books. In which case your assessment is uncanny. Salute, sir!)

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