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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden)

The sun is shining, the ocean’s lapping at her front door, and still, Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) is having nightmares. She’s spent a year traveling, to outdoorsy, faraway places (Australia, the Caribbean) and still, she’s haunted. She makes the only decision she can, the decision you expect from a tattooed, tech-gothy whiz kid with exotic piercings and photographic memory. Done with the nice weather, she heads back to chilly Sweden to sort out her demons, and kick their asses too.

This first scene in The Girl Who Played with Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden) suggests that Lisbeth is much like she was before, in the first film based on Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” mysteries. Again, she is agonizingly efficient, fixated, and alone. Only now she’s not the sometimes mesmerizing sidekick who overwhelmed the story supposed to be centered on investigative journalist Mikael (Michael Nyquist). Instead, she’s the very obvious, and less mesmerizing, center.

As such, however, Lisbeth also becomes the primary object of investigation. Not only does she help to solve this film’s mystery, again working on a kind of parallel track with Mikael, so they sort of share information and sort of come to the same conclusions, at slightly staggered times, but she is also part of that mystery. What made her interesting to begin with — her obsessiveness, her darkness, her pathology — is here explained in a most prosaic way.

It’s not that you need to know the specifics of her past to appreciate Lisbeth now — she’s as potent a cipher as any of the usual franchise heroes, as resourceful as Bourne and as lethal as Bond. What makes Lisbeth resonate is that she combines these conventional aspects with complications her boy counterparts could never fully manage: she gets herself, she knows how she looks to others, and she’s willing to suffer consequences because she knows she can: she’s suffered them all before.

Like the men before her, Lisbeth is calculating and self-absorbed, most visibly here when she exploits sometime-girlfriend Miriam (Yasmine Garbi), whom she seduces and then describes as “the only person who gives me [birthday] presents.” Lisbeth is less appreciative of this than she might be, promptly leaving Miriam in (dire) harm’s way.

And so Lisbeth must avenge two women’s abuses, hers and Miriam’s. And those abusers are very, very bad, most often hulking and ugly and desperately in need of brutalization, in the film’s moral economy. One of Lisbeth’s most deserving victims is a holdover from the first film, the so-odious legal guardian Bjurman (Peter Andersson), whose belly she tattooed rather aptly a year ago. Her return to him seems at first a matter of settling (still more?) scores and breaking off all contact going forward. That he ends up dead and she’s the prime suspect is a point of plot departure, but never a question: you and Mikael both know she’s not guilty, so he spends the rest of the movie trying to clear her name (as he “owes” her that much).

Mikael’s initial investigation, undertaken with his crew at Millennium, has to do international sex trafficking. Girls are abused, men are monsters, and Mikael is noble and a bit sanctimonious, again. Bjurman’s involvement in this plot isn’t crucial here, except that his corpse leaves Lisbeth in trouble. At the same time that she eludes the police, then, she’s also trying to track down the “real killer,” who has something to do with her traumatic childhood (no real surprise here, given her elaborately aggressive responses to bad men: her father was abusive). She and Mikael seek out johns and corrupt government agents, assuming the police are wrong and digging into all manner of dirt.

Predictably, this leads to some voyeuristic sorting through Lisbeth’s layered ordeals. Even as Mikael maintains something like a discreet and respectful distance, the movie shows plenty of ugly, sensational images. Though Lisbeth spends hours alone, her face lit by her laptop screen, when she does engage in physical encounters — for instance, painting her face white with a red slash across in order to terrorize a john into confessing all he knows — she’s more than capable of delivering savage violence of her own invention.

The film asserts that she’s learned such vile creativity at the hands of aggressors worse than her. To underline her perpetual vulnerability (She’s a victim! That’s why she’s so mean and barbarous!), she does suffer vicious attacks, her face at one point smashed to bloody pulpness by this film’s most striking villain (Mikael Spreitz), a huge blond hulk who literally feels no pain (that is, he’s hard to stop). Encounters with this cretin and others make for some too-standard action scenes: a car chase involving a sidewalk, a punch-out involving crane shots and frantic close-ups, and a showdown that leaves our girl so seemingly undone that her resurrection seems biblical, or at least zombie-movieish.

For all these conventions, the movie’s most disappointing short-hands are thematic. For, of course, Lisbeth’s abuses are never merely physical. Her maltreatment by institutions — cops, legal structures, a mental asylum where she was locked away as a child — explain (in a movie way) her distrust of all men and her hard-learned resourcefulness. She can’t just be cool. She has to be damaged to be cool.

RATING 5 / 10