The release of the Millennium Trilogy, based on Stieg Larsson's internationally bestselling crime novels (beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), has been billed as just about the biggest foreign-film event in U.S. theaters in 2010 (the trilogy was complete in its native Sweden a year ago), though the movies in question have been generally underwhelming, rattletrap affairs, all twisty plots that you can barely follow without a notebook and dismally anonymous filmmaking. The concluding chapter, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (which is not remotely similar to the actual title, The Air Castle That Was Blown Up, and is for my tastes quite an improvement), does absolutely nothing to challenge this perception, though at least it manages to avoid repeating the most tepid mistakes of its immediate predecessor.

Opening just a couple of hours after The Girl Who Played with Fire ends, Hornet's Nest is resigned primarily to spending its fatiguing two hour and twenty-seven minute running time in pursuit of tying up loose ends. When last we saw hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), she had just buried an axe in the head of her hateful father, Russian mobster Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), though not before Zalachenko and his son, Salander's half-brother, an stone-faced Aryan monolith without the ability to feel pain named Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz), managed to mess her up pretty damn badly. So off she goes to the hospital, until she can be patched up enough to face attempted murder charges (Zalachenko also managed to survive his injuries, and is in the same hospital in the same ward, which seems like something the cops would try to prevent). In the meantime, her friend, crusading liberal journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), attempts to use his bully pulpit at the magazine Millennium to search for the secrets that Salander's mere existence threatens to expose; his explorations lead him to a shadow-government operation from the 1970s involving Zalachenko and several retired national security figures.

Saying any more would give things away, though there's not much here that you couldn't fit into an episode of The X-Files - oh, fine, an X-Files two-parter. It's just that it takes Nyqvist such a long fucking time to figure anything out. Meanwhile, old leathery white men meet in secret clubs and plot deaths, though they prove dumbfoundingly ill-equipped to assassinate a young woman lying in a hospital bed with half of her body all but shot down, or a puffy middle-aged reporter with no self-preservation instincts.

Suffice it to say, as a narrative, Hornet's Nest (adapted by Ulf Ryberg, who did not contribute to the first two movies) largely bothers itself with dotting i's and crossing t's and generally not being so aimless as Played with Fire; the trade-off is that it has absolutely nothing of interest to say. For all their faults, Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire were both full of ideas about the Problems of Society Today, many of which were explored rather clumsily and over-earnestly. While you can see the outlines of that in Hornet's Nest, in the shape of the shadow government plot and international intrigue, it's hard not get the sense that even in its current bloated form, much of the story was sacrificed in order to wrap up the plot that Played with Fire left in such tatters (I've not read any of the novels; I have not the slightest idea how much more or less they describe than the films).

This greatly mechanical script is directed, as the last film was, by Daniel Alfredson, who has improved a great deal in the interim; while 18 minutes longer than that movie, Hornet's Nest feels quite a bit faster, with a much surer hand guiding the narrative through its paces. Alfredson, working again with cinematographer Peter Mokrosinski, also fails to commit so many of the amateurish visual sins he did last time: no more barbarous camera movements, not so much slack reliance on the most bland sort of shot/reverse shot boilerplate. It is still not a supple film, preferring to settle instead for sheer adequacy; it would take a far greater director to make great cinema out of so many scenes of people talking at one another, or to survive the sidelining of the by-far greatest character to a hospital bed for such a huge percentage of the running time.

That right there is the biggest problem with Hornet's Nest: in all three films, the greatest thing is undoubtedly Rapace, whose star-making turn as Salander has been one of the most heartwarming things about the 2010 movie year (she's in the process of making the Hollywood leap even now; let us pray she survives it). And she is given not remotely enough to do here, though even with a huge bandage on her head, lying flat, her knife-like eyes are more commanding than everything the rest of the cast can come up with put together (though Nyqvist is a hell of a lot less schlubby and boring than he was in Played with Fire). It's surely no accident that the last scenes, in which Rapace is freed up to run around, get her action-star on, and just generally breathe are, by a considerable margin, the film's most successful; as though the actress's mere presence enabled Alfredson and everyone to tap into skills they'd let rust throughout the rest of the shoot.

Now that the whole thing is over, I am not going to cry any tears for the Milliennium trilogy, in all its tottery overreach; I am not terribly outraged that the whole epic saga ends with such a casually anti-climactic final scene (true to the characters, but shot like a screen test). Purely on the level of procedural thrillers, the films have been decent enough - the third a great improvement on the second, and neither of them remotely near the first - but they're too self-consciously Prestigious to take advantage of the seedy, rundown milieu that Larsson crafted, too intensely European Art Film to be fun and too tawdry to be artistic. They leave no impression. Salander leaves an impression; I wish that she, and Rapace, had been given a better vehicle in which to be so amazing, so closed-off and hurt and flinty and implacable. At any rate, I have to put aside, for once, my knee-jerk resistance to American remakes of non-American cinema, and say that David Fincher's version had better do all the things the Swedish trilogy couldn't, because Lisbeth Salander deserves at least that much.