What makes a well-crafted mystery story? The case needs to be interesting, of course, but at least as important is a fascinating investigator. We want to be engrossed by the crime-solving but perhaps even more engrossed by Holmes or Marlowe or Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle, who turn out to be the biggest enigmas of all.
Better mysteries strike a careful balance between the two elements, and the Swedish movie The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009), the first film based on the late Stieg Larsson's series of novels, did just that. There was a harrowing tale of serial murder, but just as compelling were the troubled people trying to solve the crimes, the titular hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and the humiliated journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). Each had a thorny background, and it was fun to watch their wary collaboration turn into a tentative romance.
The balance isn't struck as successfully in the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire. Certainly there is a case to be solved, something to do with the sex trade. But the story is a little vague - there's a miasma of johns, thugs and grainy photos of young women. And by the end that plot thread has faded away amid more dramatic revelations.
We also see less of the journalist Mikael this time around. The focus is keenly on Lisbeth, and I understand why. She's a most entertaining and complicated action hero. She's resourceful, brave, lovely in her gothic way. But she's also deeply traumatized by an unhappy family life, and the rape and torture she endured in the first film also have presumably taken their toll. (I'm glad women aren't brutalized quite so horribly in the sequel.) When attacked, she's a crafty fighter. Men, watch out where she points that Taser!
There is much excitement - lots of scuffling and chasing, and a brutally violent finale. In perhaps my favorite sequence, Lisbeth strings up a john and threatens to shock him with a zillion volts unless he talks. You might see something like that in any mystery thriller, except that, in a deliriously loony touch, Lisbeth is wearing goofy ghoul makeup. I'm also keen on an indestructible goon (Micke Spreitz) who reminds me of Richard Kiel as Jaws in the 1970s James Bond films, minus the metal teeth.
But the sequel doesn't resonate as powerfully as the first film. That's perhaps because except for a brief tryst with a girlfriend, we don't see much of Lisbeth's tender side. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was a disturbingly violent crime thriller, but it was also, improbably enough, a sweet love story.