POSTED ON JULY 28, 2010:
Another Bittersweet Taste
Sequel doesn't live up to its predecessor, and Salt needs more seasoning
Fight Fire with Fire. Noomi Rapace reprises her role as Lisbeth Salander, who must go on the run after being connected to three murders as well as work with magazine editor Mikael Blomkvist to clear her name in The Girl Who Played with Fire.
While not yet having seen Inception, it seems that the best movies I have seen this summer haven't been coming from Hollywood. What am I saying? They clearly aren't coming from Hollywood.
It's been a pretty weak and disappointing season, overall, and I think the way Inception is performing (i.e. spectacularly) is a pretty good indicator that people are starved for original, smart films -- though Grown Ups ongoing existence in the Top 10 gums up that logic a bit.
So when something like The Girl Who Played with Fire comes along, it's really no surprise that Hollywood's reaction is to re-make it -- along with the first and third films based on Stieg Larsson's bestselling Millennium Trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.
But in the rush to Americanize the perfectly engrossing, entertaining and satisfying Swedish films (because many won't see movies with people they don't recognize speaking languages they don't understand), I'm sure that Hollywood will lose something in the translation.
It's easier to talk about The Girl Who Played with Fire with knowing the basics of the first film in the trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (Check out Joshua Blevins Peck's review of the lead-up film, "On Pins and Needles" in the May 6-12 issue or at urbantulsa.com.) Also, the first film should be seen in order to fully appreciate the latest entry.
In the first film, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is the managing editor of a muckraking Stockholm magazine who gets convicted of libel for a story he ran about a corrupt business magnate.
In the interim, before he serves his sentence, he takes a case from Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), a member of the wealthy, industrialist Vanger family. Henrik wants Blomkvist to discover the whereabouts of Henrik's niece, Harriet, who he raised as his own daughter after his brother's untimely death. Harriet disappeared without a trace in the early 1960s.
Unknown to Blomkvist, a young hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) has been snooping in his files at the request of a client of the security firm she works for. After the job is over, though, her curiosity about Blomkvist and his case compel her to join up with him to crack the mystery.
That mystery overturns the stones on some dark family secrets, as well as the secrets of Salander -- a bisexual computer whiz with a mean streak and more than a few surprises hidden beneath her stoic, tattooed exterior.
The film is a propulsive, kinetic, sexy and very fun ride. So perhaps it was inevitable that The Girl Who Played with Fire didn't feel quite as fresh.
One year after the events of the first film, Blomkvist -- having served his sentence -- is back at the helm of Millennium Magazine digging up dirt on Sweden's power elite. He's approached by Dag Svensson (Hans Christian Thulin) a young, ambitious reporter who has been working on an explosive sex trafficking story that implicates police, judges and politicians in the abuse of underage sex slaves.
Meanwhile, Salander has been on the run -- though still surreptitiously poking around in Blomkvist's laptop. When she learns of the abuse story -- as Blomkvist knew she would -- her own history compels her to return to Stockholm and help out with the case.
Unfortunately, the cub reporter on the sex scandal story is murdered along with his researcher girlfriend, and when Salander's former probation officer turns up dead, the police accuse her of the killings. Salander has to go on the run again, while trying to help Blomkvist get to the bottom of the mystery, one that hits closer and closer to home as she goes full on rouge.
Many plot points in The Girl Who Played with Fire tie directly to events introduced in the first film, though the nature of this film's plot is essentially a different case. And while much of the momentum of the first film is present here, the main plot just isn't as compelling and plays second fiddle somewhat, while serving the development of Salander's character.
This is her movie, and with good reason, as she's one of the most well conceived tough girls I've seen in awhile. An ass-kicking, whip smart opportunist with a loose moral code and a photographic memory, Lisbeth Salander might not always do the right thing, but she is inherently decent.
While the first film similarly put more emphasis on Blomkivst, the story felt more balanced, and the narrative more organic. Blomkvist and Salander are both interesting characters in their own rights, but the films are at their best when they are together, and their odd chemistry takes over.
But that's not much of a slight against The Girl Who Played with Fire, and the fact is much of what made the first one so enjoyable is still present. It's bizarre, violent, smart and sexy.
Director Daniel Alfredson replaces Niels Arden Opley in the director's chair, though the dark tone remains. He paces the proceedings well and shoots the lovely, lonely Swedish vistas with a keen eye for the foreboding mood of the story.
Performances are fine, with the standouts being Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, returning to the roles of Blomkvist and Salander. Nyqvist is an interesting performer in that he brings an authenticity to the role and a fine performance, but these films are the first I've seen of his work, which makes it that much easier to see him as just Blomkvist. I can divorce him from other roles, which isn't as easy to do with a better known actor -- even the great ones.
The same applies to Rapace, though as a character Lisbeth Salander is already larger-than-life. Her quiet intensity and athletic sexiness -- at one point I thought she would have made a great Aeon Flux -- don't overpower her often subtle acting. While she has something of a superhero quality to her, the character is deeply written by this point, and Rapace ably melds it all into a living, breathing performance.
I loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and really liked The Girl Who Played with Fire. While it didn't quite rise to the fiercely compelling charms of the first film, it still left me salivating for the third.
Needs Some Pepper
Salt isn't a complete film. At least it doesn't feel like one. Writer Kurt Wimmer -- who has a habit of leaving things like logic on the backburner -- has crafted another piece of high-concept genre amusement that is probably best enjoyed if you don't think about it too much.
But here, it seems as though Wimmer begins the film halfway through the first act and floors it all the way to a sequel bait non-ending that will make you feel like you just pigged out at a cheap Chinese buffet only to find you are still starving. I'm already having trouble remembering what it was about.
Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA deep-cover agent, who is seemingly being set up as a deep cover Russian mole when a defector (they still have those?) accuses her of being a sleeper agent.
Sensing a trap being sprung, Salt escapes from custody to protect her husband Mike (August Diehl), a spider expert, who saved her from certain death in North Korea years before. Her boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) is convinced of her innocence, though not so true with Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who will do whatever it takes to reel her in.
As Salt goes deeper down the rabbit hole, so does the twisting plot which is loaded with double crosses and Catch .22's that, one on top of the other, strain belief, common sense and narrative logic with comic book plotting and a healthy disregard for physics.
That basic plot, based on some quaintly retro Cold War conceits, makes Salt feel like a throwback to conspiratorial spy thrillers from the '80s like Firefox, albeit with a much higher action quota.
Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, ironically) gives it the look of an updated '80s flick and does a serviceable job with the action set pieces. The stunt work is fine, and often practical, with Jolie doing many of her own stunts. But the fight choreography doesn't flow very well and never feels particularly kinetic or natural. Wimmer is known for crafting interesting fight sequences, but Noyce doesn't seem up to the task of making them connect.
Fortunately, despite all the cliché and sensationalism, the mildly amusing Salt is well cast. Jolie is fairly magnetic as Salt. She's not an actress with a massive tool kit, but she does throw herself completely into every role, and this is no different. She's one of the few female action stars out there right now that can go from something like Salt (or true crap like Tomb Raider) to high-brow Oscar fodder without missing a beat.
Leiv Schreiber classes the place up as Ted Winter. I don't know what it is about the guy. He seems to relish taking supporting roles in genre flicks (Repo Men, The Manchurian Candidate) and imbuing them with his unique blend of suave gravity and decidedly Everyman looks. Here Schreiber is as reliably charismatic as ever, in a role that should have you laughing at its ultimate reveal but which he still pulls off like a champ.
Chiwetel Edjiofor rounds out the trio of talent as Peabody, though they all breathe more life into this film than it otherwise would have had. I've seen him do that before, in 2012 specifically, where he takes a character that is thinly written on the page and fleshes it into something dimensional, just through pure force of skill.
Salt isn't an affront to cinema (no matter what Armond White says), and there were a few enjoyable moments and a few curveballs from Wimmer that I didn't see coming (though, like in his Law Abiding Citizen, he cheats to make them happen).
While its performances certainly help in ignoring the fact, Salt still feels like a film in search of a reason to exist. It's been done before -- and better.
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