If “The Girl Who Played with Fire” is any indication, it's best to avoid the word “meeting” in your crime thriller screenplay. It's easy to imagine it appears regularly in the pages of this movie, a tedious sequel to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” both adaptations of popular books by the late Stieg Larsson.
In the latest, meetings and conversations are the primary tools for advancing the plot. Characters meet in conference rooms, in cafes, restaurants and pubs; they meet in offices, bars and apartments, on the street and in museums. There's even a meeting in a hospital where a minor character reports on a phone meeting he just had. All this talk is used to introduce new characters and information, which ironically create more reasons for meetings and discussions, making the novel's multilayered plot extremely difficult to follow.
“The Girl Who Played with Fire” is at least 80 percent exposition, which you'll have to read in the subtitles unless you're fluent in Swedish. Much of it revolves around Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the girl in the movies' titles, an ace hacker whose entanglements with the law and subsequent uncovering of a Nazi sex-crime ring were the subjects of the previous film. Still running from her past in the current movie, she becomes the unlikely suspect of a triple homicide connected to another sex-crime ring investigated by her crime-fighting partner from the last movie, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist).
Like the techno update of an Agatha Christie Poirot episode, the movie alternates between scenes of Salander and Blomkvist “investigating.” The word is in quotes because we're always forced to take the movie at its word that the investigations are warranted and that what the characters are doing is helpful, even as the facts accumulate without context. What are they investigating? It takes a while to figure it out.
For Salander these activities usually involve downloading something, spying on someone or contemplating into the middle distance with a cigarette. Blomkvist gets even more mundane duties. He drives around a lot and then gives or receives information to a host of minor characters.
In a frequently repeated scene, he sits at a table with other journalists to share information while director Daniel Alfredson, taking his first turn at a Larsson adaptation, compulsively provides reaction shots. Throw in the campy musical cues (Danger! Surprise!) and it begins to feel like Alfredson and company got their filmmaking tips from '60s television reruns.
In this way “Fire” ends up little more than a long-winded and dry accumulation of evidence; the scant action scenes only serve to facilitate the introduction of yet more characters and information. In one of the more convoluted examples, two minor characters are given about 30 minutes of screen time to get abducted and escape, all so one of them can make a phone call and find out who their attacker is, an important personage in the novels, no doubt. It dawns on you, however, that this mystery man wouldn't have been necessary in the first place if it weren't for the minor characters themselves.
The problem with constructing a story this way, especially a thriller, is that the information you're giving your audience might be surprising and sordid, but that doesn't make it suspenseful or revealing. Real investigative reporters don't construct a story in the order they learned the information. They organize it to make it interesting, a skill that seems beyond “Fire.” The movie offers up enough criminals to fill a jail but nothing that grabs you — not unless you've read the book and are simply interested in what the characters look like on screen.
If you're hoping for more of the soft-core prurience offered by the first movie, be warned it's in short supply this time around as Salander and Blomkvist coincidentally turn up at locations to regurgitate plot. “Fire” feels like an attempt to quickly churn out the rest of Larsson's Millennium Series before it gets a forthcoming second treatment by American producers. Reportedly David Fincher is slated to direct, and if his absorbing police procedural “Zodiac” is any indication the material should fare better.
His European counterparts don't have a clue. “It's a matter of life and death!” Blomkvist insists at one of his many meetings. That tired line seems especially trite when you have to read it in subtitles. (R) 129 min.