Yes, this is the second film in the popular series. And, yes, the director and screenwriter of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have both been replaced; we now have director Daniel Alfredson and writer Jonas Frykberg. Does this make a difference? Yes, it does.
The Girl Who Played With Fire is noticeably less stylish than the first film, and that’s directly attributable to Alfredson. The other differences—a somewhat less-compelling story, a weaker payoff and the almost-complete lack of interaction between Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist)—are attributable to the source material, meaning those qualities will come as no surprise to fans of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy books.
However, it’s true that The Girl Who Played With Fire simply isn’t as good as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and is a film that I’d tend to think might be hard to follow for anyone who hasn’t seen the first installment. Yet it’s also strangely a film that seems to believe that one of its own plot points—how Lisbeth came to be considered in need of a guardian—is more revelatory than it actually is. Specifics are revealed here, but the basics were shown in the first movie. (Put bluntly, we already knew she’d played with fire.)
None of this is to say that The Girl Who Played With Fire isn’t good; it is. The film is an intriguing, compelling mystery thriller with interesting characters. That it’s a lesser work than its predecessor doesn’t alter that fact—especially if you’re interested in Lisbeth and Mikael.
The plotting is intricate in the extreme, managing to tie the events of its story into those of the first film, even though many events in the new film have nothing to do with the first entry’s central mystery. Rather, the new narrative grows out of a combination of Lisbeth’s past, her involvement with her previous guardians and the fact that Mikael works for Millennium, a magazine that specializes in uncovering corruption. All of these elements coalesce into a situation where Lisbeth ends up being framed for multiple murders; it’s cleverly handled, slickly done and occasionally a little preposterous. It’s also undeniably entertaining—though it does all come with one problem.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo may have kept Lisbeth and Mikael separate for the first part of the proceedings, but this film—by necessity of its plot—keeps them apart for nearly its entire length. This doesn’t necessarily hurt The Girl Who Played With Fire; the fact that Lisbeth and Mikael drift back to previous lovers is interesting at the very least, though it does make for a movie that limits each character’s screen time. For viewers who are particularly keen on Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth, this could be a downside, but since so much of what Mikael does focuses on her and her plight, the specter of her character hangs over even those scenes she’s not actually in.
The film’s biggest drawback, apart from its less-stylish direction, lies in its ending. While being good enough in and of itself, it simply doesn’t have the impact—much less the creepiness—of that of the first film. For that matter, The Girl Who Played With Fire lacks some of the first film’s sense of resolution altogether; this one is clearly designed to lead into The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and has that middle-film feel that makes it seem slightly unsatisfying. But if you liked the first film and have any interest in the continuation of the story, then see this one, by all means. Rated R for brutal violence including a rape, some strong sexual content, nudity and language.