There’s no mystery about why Stieg Larsson’s three Millennium novels have sold some 40-million copies worldwide. The late author’s anti-corporate politics and stern feminism must resonate with many readers, especially in Europe, and his juicy genre plot trappings—murder, sex, conspiracy, revenge, and, what the hey, vintage Nazis, too—are certainly an even bigger draw. But what’s really catapulted this sprawling trilogy onto the misty heights of international bestseller-dom is its unforgettable central character—the bisexual psycho-punk cyber sleuth Lisbeth Salander, girl of our twistiest dreams.
Noomi Rapace, the actress who plays Salander in the three Swedish films made from Larsson’s books—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—is uniquely effective in the role. She’s wiry, guarded, and entirely iconic, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. (We wish Rooney Mara well in David Fincher’s English-language remake of the first film, currently underway.) Rapace, with her deadpan stare and flat-black thatch of goth-girl hair, easily carries all three movies; but like the books on which they’re based, the films are of variable quality. Dragon Tattoo, released here earlier this year, offered the unrepeatable thrill of introducing Salander in full kick-ass form, although the story was so crowded with contending characters that you missed the scorecard to which your tickets should surely have been affixed. It was a terrific beginning, though.
The next two pictures, however, put into production before receipts from the surprise-hit opener came pouring in, were shot for Swedish television, with a new director, Daniel Alfredson, taking over the mini-franchise from Niels Arden Oplev. Salander was more central to The Girl Who Played with Fire, which opened here last summer: We were drawn deeper into the brutal childhood trauma that consigned her to a mental institution, and Rapace remained a gripping presence. But the movie felt like a TV rush job, trashy-looking and awkwardly-made, and it didn’t seem to bode well for the concluding installment.
So it’s an unexpected surprise that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is such a rousing wrap-up. The movie is a straight-ahead thriller, filled with corruption, perversity, and smash-bang action scenes, and it almost—although not quite—justifies its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. It opens (need I say “spoiler alert” here?) where the last film left off, with the bullet-riddled Salander being airlifted away to a hospital after having taken an axe to the vicious Russian Cold War spook Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), who, adepts will recall, is actually her detestable father. The diminutive avenger is now in a classically tight spot, unjustly accused of murder, menaced by a sicko shrink who wants to put her back in the bin, and targeted for termination by Zalachenko’s shadowy controllers in the Swedish intelligence service. And still lurching about around the edges of the action is the murderous goon Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz), who’s most unfavorably disposed toward Salander himself.
Fortunately, her quasi-partner and protector, the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nykvist), is determined to clear Salander by publishing her alarming life story—filled with appalling sexual abuse and dark political chicanery—in a special issue of his investigative magazine, Millennium. This further inflames the intelligence heavies, and soon the story grows thick with deadly assassins, bent medicos, excitable bikers, a considerable amount of courtroom cat-and-mousery (and lamentably talky hospital interludes), and a heavy-duty nail gun that’s put to startlingly inventive use.
It’s fitting that this final Salander movie doesn’t end in a burst of sunny transformation and high fives all around. The conclusion does, however, leave open the possibility of a sequel, and one can imagine the temptation of cutting Salander loose from Larsson’s books and launching her into a series of unrelated films in Bondian perpetuity. This seems unlikely to happen, though. Rapace has already been cast in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes sequel, and there are mumblings of her possible involvement in Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel. The actress is moving on. The character, now headed for Hollywood, may not be so lucky.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York. This column first appeared at Reason.com.