The Girl Who Played With Fire (R) (129 min.) — The middle film in any trilogy can become a transitional speed bump, so it's no big surprise that The Girl Who Played With Fire isn't the stunner that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was. But it's a welcome chance to learn more about Lisbeth Salander, the kinky, punk hacker and pop culture phenom played by Noomi Rapace.
Lisbeth carries the load in Part 2 of the late novelist Stieg Larsson's Millennium series, with crusading reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) noodling through clues on the periphery. They cross paths even later than in Dragon Tattoo, which is a shame since these two actors and roles are such irresistible opposites. Frankly, the crimes they're solving — although murders connected to sex trafficking — aren't as luridly fascinating, either.
But those crimes offer Lisbeth another crusade against men who hate women (as the first film and book were originally titled). We met a couple of them in the first movie: Lisbeth's corrupt legal guardian, whom she brutally tattooed with a confession of his rapist bent, and her abusive father, whom she set on fire as a child.
Each misogynist is tied to the killings of two journalists publishing exposes of sex rings involving Swedish socialites, so suspects with motives and opportunities abound. Whoever did it left clues implicating Lisbeth, who dodges capture and digs for clues while Mikael attempts to clear her name.
A different director than Part 1, Daniel Alfredson, takes a more methodical approach to Larsson's material than his predecessor did. The plot isn't a genealogical puzzle like Dragon Tattoo, but Alfredson and screenwriter Jonas Frykberg attempt to disguise the mystery as more complex than it is. The Girl Who Played With Fire is special only for the uniquely confident character of Lisbeth, and Rapace's sexy-fierce manifestation of it.
Part 3 of Larsson's bestselling series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, is due in a Swedish film version this fall. Meanwhile, Hollywood is prepping an English-language version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for 2011, reportedly starring Carey Mulligan (An Education) and Agent 007 himself, Daniel Craig. The subtitled original is now on DVD, and highly recommended before viewing Part 2.
The Girl Who Played With Fire starts Friday at Tampa Theatre, and Aug. 6 at Beach Theatre in St. Pete Beach. B
Steve Persall, Times film critic