The second of three films adapted from Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (which was meant to be a decalogy, before the author's terribly premature death), The Girl Who Played with Fire is in almost all ways not as good a film as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, made with much of the same cast and virtually none of the same crew. Nor was Dragon Tattoo such an air-tight picture in the first place: an agreeably entertaining Internet Age detective story for sure, and a glossy piece of filmmaking that proves with admirable efficiency that the U.S. doesn't have a stranglehold on slick, facile filmmaking. Alack, that Played with Fire misses even that bar: "facile" it absolutely is; but "slick", not very, and "agreeably entertaining", even less.

About one year after the events of the first story, the crusading lefty journalists at Millennium, led by intrepid publisher Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), are still as crusading as ever; they've just picked up a new researcher (Hans-Christian Thulin), whose girlfriend is just completing a doctoral thesis on prostitution. The two young folk have put together a massively important indictment of human trafficking that implicates several extremely prominent Swedish political figures and businessmen, and Blomkvist is thrilled to be dotting the last i's and crossing the last t's before publishing. Meanwhile, the extroardinary hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who has a dragon tattoo and once played with fire - and, I have it one good faith, is given to kicking hornets' nests - has just returned to Sweden after a lengthy trip away, and is preparing to go into hiding immediately. Which turns out to be more useful than she could have possibly expected when she becomes the prime suspect in the murders of the new Millennium researcher, his girlfriend, and the scumbag racist (Peter Andersson) against whom she exact such sweet revenge the year before.

Blomkvist is shocked that Salander has thus re-entered his life, albeit tangentially, and he immediately launches himself into figuring out who actually committed the crimes. She, meanwhile, is looking to figure out the same thing, though her goals are not, shall we say, quite so legally pure as the reporter's. Thus begins a twisty two-pronged investigation into the criminal depths of the trafficking ring, that reveals along the way a good deal of Salander's own shrouded, hugely traumatic past.

Did you note that I used the word "meanwhile" twice in recapping all of that? No accident at all: for The Girl Who Played with Fire suffers rather mightily from keeping its two protagonists separate for virtually the whole running time, in striking contrast to Dragon Tattoo, which paired them up by the half-way point. This difference - arguably the primary distinction between the two films - is fatal; the best part of the first movie was, almost beyond a doubt, the interplay between Salander and Blomkvist, and moreso between Nyqvist and Rapace, who enjoyed an excellent prickly chemistry. Obviously, it's a flaw forced onto the film (adapted by Jonas Frykberg) by the novel, which I haven't read; that doesn't excuse it, nor does it excuse the incredibly frustrating non-ending, in which most of the loose ends remain stubbornly untied. As the credits roll, we know hardly any of the "whys" for what has happened: most of this mystery's explanations are in some way or another related to Salander's backstory, and not at all to the confusing, largely un-explicated prostitution industry that forms the backbone of its narrative. I have it on good authority that this is also the case in the novel, and that it works perfectly well there; the second and third books were designed to flow into one another with virtually no stop, which likely means that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is going to be a damn sight more dramatically pleasing when us Americans get to see it in October (all three films premiered in their native Sweden throughout 2009).

Were this the movie's singular great problem, I'd probably overlook it: you deal with the source material you're given, especially when the source material is as massively successful as the Millennium Trilogy. But the profoundly unsatisfying narrative of Played with Fire is but the most obvious problem in a film ribboned with inadequacy and limpness. Setting aside the fact that it's not as good a story as Dragon Tattoo, it's also not as good a work of cinema: the departure of director Niels Arden Oplev, and his replacement by Daniel Alfredson leads to an unexpected and indensible drop in the mere competence of the filmmaking. Not that Oplev was a genius: far from it, he just had a good eye for how to put the actors in the frame for maximum effect, and a reasonable sense of pace. Alfredson can make neither claim: though nearly 25 minutes shorter than Dragon Tattoo, Played with Fire feels every bit as long, and it stretches out the most near the end, as it becomes increasingly clear that absolutely none of this will make any sense until the third one comes out. Almost without exception, he directs the actors to give flatter, more obvious performances - Nyqvist in particular is absolutely the Lord Mayer of Dull Town, without Rapace to play off of - and worst of all, to my mind, his use of the camera is criminally inept (or perhaps it is cinematographer Peter Mokrosinski who is to blame; the effect is the same either way). Nothing in this film indicates that it was assembled by a director who understands what the relationship between the image and narrative is or can be; and his clownish use of camera movements (in one particularly egregious case, an emphatic tilt that does absolutely nothing besides bring a table into frame in the most distracting way possible) is positively unforgivable.

The one exception amongst the wobbly actors, and the only really good element of Played with Fire at all, is Rapace: the actress has grown immensely in comfort with the character, and her physicality, and coupled with the generally more interesting material she is given to work with here, she gives the film its sole flash of any real human emotion or fire. She deserves a better movie and a better story; perhaps she'll get it with the third entry (though I doubt it, given that most of the crew of the second movie worked on the next one as well). For right now, though she is the only spot of warmth in a thin-blooded mystery that goes nowhere, and goes there in the most clumsy, ungracious manner that it possibly could.