'The Girl Who Played With Fire': Middling, By Kurt Loder

Cyber-icon seeks better movie.

The good news about [movie id="435647"]"The Girl Who Played With Fire"[/movie] is that hacker-punk avenger Lisbeth Salander is right at the center of it. In "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," the first movie drawn from Swedish author Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy," Salander (Noomi Rapace) was a bit peripheral, a sort of cyber-sidekick to investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) on his quest to solve a 40-year-old mystery involving a secretive industrial clan. Here, she's the focus of the story, which is more of a straight-ahead thriller, and unsurprisingly, she's a treat to watch.

At the end of the first film, Salander had taken off to the Caribbean with millions of dollars of bad-guy cash. Now she's back in Stockholm, paying a visit to her sleazy social-worker custodian, Bjurman (Peter Andersson), whose last encounter with his angry ward left him with a new appreciation for tasers and an unexpected collection of nasty tattoos.

Meanwhile, Blomkvist has commissioned a sensational story for his magazine by two young reporters — a blockbuster exposé about sex trafficking that incriminates a score of government big shots. Then the reporters are murdered, and Salander's fingerprints are found on the gun that killed them. The gun belonged to Bjurman, and it turns out he's dead, too.

Salander is suddenly on the run, and determined to find the truth about the murders. Blomkvist is, too — he knows his odd little friend is innocent. The story expands into areas of espionage, corruption and sexual abuse, with a towering white-haired killer lumbering into the action in the service of a vile Russian thug. We also learn about the devastating childhood incident that landed Salander in a mental institution (and gives the movie its name).

There's a lot of stuff happening, in other words. But the best parts are pure Lisbeth. She takes her taser and makeup box along to pay a visit to another sex pig (they're her mission in life), and leaves him tied up like a very sad clown. She takes on a trio of greasy bikers and leaves them deeply wishing she hadn't. We also get a glimpse of her sensitive side (who knew she had one?) in an artfully shot lesbian sex scene. Noomi Rapace owns this iconic character, and even though we're getting more of her here, we can't get enough.

The bad news about the movie is that it's not well-made. It's a chopped-down Swedish TV movie, and it looks it. Niels Arden Oplev, who directed the first film, is here replaced by its second-unit director, Daniel Alfredson, who brought along a new writer and cinematographer, too. The picture is flat and disjointed, and some of its gaudier elements (the white-haired killer might have drifted in from an old Bond movie) aren't as much fun as you keep wishing they were. There's also the usual ungainliness of any middle installment of a movie trilogy — we have to wait for the story's ambiguities and unanswered questions to be clarified in the final film, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," which is due out here in the fall. The bad news about that picture is that it was also made by Arden, back-to-back with this one. Lisbeth Salander's most dangerous opponent may turn out to be her director.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "Predators" and "The Kids Are All Right," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "The Girl Who Played With Fire."

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