The Girl Who Played With Fire
Noomi Rapace’s mesmerizing portrayal of Lisbeth Salander is the principal reason to watch the second film based on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. The film lacks the multi-layered plot of the first installment, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and director Daniel Alfredson had neither the budget nor the cinematic flair displayed by Dragon Tattoo’s Niels Arden Oplev. But Rapace grounds the film with a desperate intensity that’s all the more remarkable given the scant number of lines provided for Lisbeth by Jonas Frykberg’s screenplay. She’s the essential presence, because, unlike Dragon Tattoo, there’s no separate mystery in Fire for Lisbeth to investigate. As the trilogy progresses, all roads lead to Lisbeth.
Studio: Music Box Films Home Entertainment
Film Length: 129 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: Swedish DD 5.1; English DD 5.1
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: Sept. 18, 2009 (Sweden); July 9, 2010 (U.S.)
Blu-ray Release Date: Oct. 26, 2010
If you’re reading this, presumably you’re already familiar with Dragon Tattoo. If you’re not, you should stop now. Like the film itself, I will assume you already know the characters and as much of their histories as the first film revealed.
About a year after the events of Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth is still living in the Caribbean retreat she purchased with funds siphoned from the secret accounts of the crooked industrialist, Wennerström (who committed suicide after he was indicted). But she’s keeping an eye on Sweden and is prompted to return by developments relating to her court-appointed guardian, the despicably vicious Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), whom Lisbeth blackmailed into submission in Dragon Tattoo. In order to remain under the radar, Lisbeth purchases a new Stockholm apartment under an alias and arranges for a friend and occasional lover, Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi), to take over her old apartment and handle her mail.
Meanwhile, Bjurman has been approached by an intimidating blond hulk (Micke Spreitz) on behalf of a client, known as “Zala”, whose name Bjurman seems to recognize. Zala wants certain files from Bjurman – files about Lisbeth. When Bjurman discovers that Lisbeth is back in Sweden, he agrees to turn over the files, but only if Zala will first kill Lisbeth and recover the incriminating evidence she has against him.
Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is still hard at work exposing corruption at Millennium magazine. The publication’s latest scoop is an exposé of a sex trade operation that imports young girls from Eastern Europe; many of the customers are police officers and government officials. The eager young reporter on the story is Dag Svensson (Hans Christian Thulin), who is focusing on the johns, while his girfriend, Mia (Jennie Silfverhjelm), has just published an academic study focusing on the women who work as prostitutes and the men who exploit them. Blomkvist, having previously been burned by research that did not hold up when challenged in court, insists on intensive verification, and Dag sets about tracking down and confronting as many johns as possible. As the article’s publication date approaches, Dag mentions to Blomkvist that Mia’s study used a pseudonym for a shadowy figure who kept coming up in her interviews with the hookers. The man was known as “Zala”.
Thus fate reconnects Lisbeth and Blomkvist. The connection becomes urgent when Lisbeth is framed for several murders and her photo appears on every front page and TV screen in Sweden. (It’s a grimmer repetition of Blomkvist’s predicament at the beginning of Dragon Tattoo.) That the murder charges are false isn’t a spoiler, but I won’t disclose the identities of the victims, even though one can spot them early on. Blomkvist asserts Lisbeth’s innocence to both his Millennium colleagues and the chief police investigator, the phlegmatic Bublanski (Johan Kylén), but he doesn’t rely on the authorities to clear her. He undertakes his own inquiry, knowing that Lisbeth must be doing the same thing. Once again, they are working as a team (if only in spirit).
It’s impossible to describe more of the story without ruining it, because, from opposite ends, the two sleuths must unravel a criminal conspiracy spanning decades and involving government complicity at the highest levels. There are some wonderful scenes along the way. Blomkvist’s interview of a retired government official is especially memorable, as is Lisbeth’s encounter with a pair of bikers at a remote country location. An intriguing subplot involves the professional boxer, Paolo Roberto (playing himself), who trained Lisbeth in the art of self-defense. He has an unforgettable encounter with the mysterious blond hulk, who keeps appearing out of nowhere and has all the attributes of a classic henchman in a Bond film (minus the facetious nickname).
What’s missing is the dynamic chemistry that Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyquist brought to their characters in Dragon Tattoo. The demands of the plot keep Lisbeth and Blomkvist apart until the very end of Fire, and director Alfredson lacks either the experience or the imagination to create an overriding sense of their connection through mise-en-scène, visual design and editing rhythms. His experience was in television, and indeed Fire was originally intended as a TV movie, a plan that was quickly altered after the theatrical success of Dragon Tattoo. But both the script and the direction betray their TV origins in their overriding drive to get to the next event in the simplest and most direct way possible. It’s left for the actors to fill out the characters and for the audience to help them by remembering everything that was so powerfully established in the preceding film (including, above all, the significance of fire in Lisbeth Salander’s biography).
Fire doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, but it doesn’t reach a complete resolution either. It clearly points toward the third film, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. The English translation of Larsson’s novel (the original Swedish title was “The Air Castle That Exploded”) was only just released in America last May. The film version is being released in U.S. theaters today, October 29, 2010.
After their fine Blu-ray presentation of Dragon Tattoo, Music Box has come up woefully short with Fire. I cannot recall another Blu-ray that I have reviewed (or that I have watched) which displayed such noticeable amounts of video noise. At times, I was reminded of the days of laserdisc, when we used to talk about “chroma noise” (though, of course, that particular phenomenon disappeared when video went digital). I was not able to identify a pattern; some shots were clean, but would be immediately followed by one with pulsing backgrounds. Nor could I be sure whether the noise resulted from the transfer process or from over-compression. In theory, at least, a 129-minute film with no significant extras and only two lossy soundtracks should be able to fit on a 25GB Blu-ray without compression artifacts, especially since it has no major action sequences.
In this review as originally published, I noted that Fire, unlike Dragon Tattoo, does not contain a credit for a digital intermediate. However, the film’s credits include Ola Bäccman who, according to his website, worked on both Fire and the third film in the trilogy as a “digital colourist”. This indicates that some form of digital grading was applied in post-production, although it is still unclear whether a full-fledged DI was produced. As noted in the original review, in the absence of a DI, a transfer would have been done after completion of the film, possibly from a source other than the original camera negative and without the benefit of the fine-tuning that is an integral part of preparing a DI. The problems I saw on the Blu-ray are certainly consistent with a transfer performed without sufficient time or resources to achieve a satisfactory result.
But I want to stress again that I can only speculate on the cause. All I can say for sure is that the image on this Blu-ray falls far below the level of quality that can reasonably be expected from a film made and first released in 2009.
If one can look past the video noise, the black levels on the disc are quite good, and detail, even in shadows at night, holds up surprisingly well. This is aptly demonstrated in a scene involving a massive conflagration in a forest at night, where the frame must simultaneously retain both the brightness of the flames and the shadows of what’s happening near them.
Colors are varied and generally accurate, but both the design and the cinematography of Fire are neither as consistent nor as stylish as those of Dragon Tattoo. Here again, the lower budget is evident.
ADDENDUM: After posting this review, I’ve noted that some reviewers have praised this disc for retaining the film’s "grain". Every reviewer is entitled to his or her opinion, but there’s a difference between grain and noise. I saw the film theatrically. What’s on this disc is noise.
On the audio front, the news is somewhat better. The viewer has a choice of the original Swedish language track (with optional English subtitles) or a dubbed English track. Both are in Dolby Digital 5.1, but Music Box seems to have gotten the message that Blu-ray purchasers expect something more than what they could get on DVD. Where both the Dragon Tattoo Blu-ray and DVD shared the same DD track with a standard bitrate of 448kb/ps, the tracks on the Blu-ray for Fire are 640kb/ps – the highest possible rate for Dolby Digital and one that is almost never used on DVD. While it isn’t lossless sound, it’s a very high-quality track, as the roar, crackle and crashing during the above-mentioned scene of conflagration will demonstrate. Typical ambient sounds of city life (and, where appropriate, country life) appear throughout, as well as the occasional oddity. (An accoustical modem makes an appearance at one point, and it’s truly incongruous.) As with Dragon Tattoo, the track is not showy, but it gets the job done. The atmospheric score is once again by Jacob Groth.
Trailers. Trailers are all we get this time. The film’s trailer is available as a separate extra. At startup the disc plays trailers for Mesrine, The Sicilian Girl, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, OSS 117 Lost in Rio and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In a departure from the usual mastering practice, these cannot be skipped with the chapter forward button, but the “top menu” button will bypass them entirely. All are separately available from the features menu.
In reviewing the Blu-ray of Dragon Tattoo, I questioned whether even as talented a director as David Fincher (now shooting the American version of the trilogy) could bring anything truly new to such a brilliantly realized vision. But Fire cries out for someone of Fincher’s talent to bring it fully to life. What remains to be seen is whether the recently cast Rooney Mara can fill the tough biker boots left empty when Noomi Rapace indicated she had no interest in revisiting the role of Lisbeth Salander. For almost anyone who’s seen her, Rapace has defined the character. She’s unmistakably Lisbeth even though, for most of Fire, she’s shed most of Lisbeth’s trademark regalia for the sake of remaining incognito. It’s all in the attitude.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub