It's hard not to start anticipating David Fincher's English-language version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, scheduled for December 2011, about two-thirds of the way through The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.
As the original Swedish trilogy based on Stieg Larsson's novels wraps up, the concluding chapter (directed by Daniel Alfredson) feels less like the end than like the calculated setup for yet another installment of Larsson's still-expanding posthumous empire. Part of that is due to the unsatisfying dramatic arc of the latest film, which is only nominally a thriller, bogged down as it is by exposition and courtroom scenes; part of it is the unavoidable feeling that the entire series, as enjoyable as it's been, could have been better, and that maybe Fincher, the director of Fight Club and Zodiac, will realize its full potential.
All three movies—Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and now Hornet's Nest—are more than just watchable, anchored by Noomi Rapace's intense, gripping portrayal of computer hacker anti-hero Lisbeth Salander. (In the latest movie, where the character wears her stoniest public face and has almost no dialogue, Rapace manages to reveal even more of Salander's crippling anxieties and vulnerability, adding shade and dimension with the slightest glance or nod of her head.) The movies are stately and handsome, in the best Scandinavian spirit, and they flatter their audience, in the same way that a good BBC detective show does (i.e., you're watching a foreign arthouse film, even while you're eating up as much gratuitous sexual violence as you'd get from any entry in the Saw series). The trouble—besides the clash between erudition and exploitation—is that the rewards have diminished with each installment, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest feels like an unnecessary—and unnecessarily lengthy—addition to a story arc that felt almost entirely complete after two chapters.
The final movie starts immediately after the ultra-violent events at the end of The Girl Who Played With Fire, with Salander in the hospital with a bullet in her head following a showdown with her villainous father, Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), a former Soviet spy who's been protected for decades by a rogue branch of the Swedish secret service. Those same agents manufacture attempted murder charges against Salander as she recuperates, in a plan to discredit her claims and cover up their conspiracy.
If you like political thrillers, it's an inviting setup. It's got spies, secrets, and an exotic setting, all the ingredients established way back in The 39 Steps. You won't regret the two-and-a-half hours it takes to get through it, and indeed you probably need the first 20 minutes or so to completely tie up the loose ends from the two previous movies. But you won't remember it as a highlight of the series, and may in fact feel somewhat deflated by the time it's over. Much of the suspense depends on Salander's lawyer backtracking through the events of the first two movies to prove her innocence, a narrative strategy that results in long, numbing stretches of Swedish justice in action. In a parallel storyline, Salander's friend Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is compiling a long magazine article that he hopes will clear her, but which also brings him and his colleagues at Millennium under fire from the same agents out to get Salander. Don't forget that Salander's hulking German half-brother Niedermann is terrorizing the streets of Gothenburg with vaguely formed but decidedly violent intentions.
None of this lives up to Salander's bloody battle with Zalachenko from the previous movie. Their fight was graphic, unsettling, even shocking, but at least it kept your attention. Here, you're watching a conspiracy you've known about since halfway through The Girl Who Played With Fire unravel in all the predictable ways, and waiting for Salander's attorney to drop the one convincing piece of evidence she has, itself a leftover from the very first movie. It all feels like one layer too many for a credible mystery, which isn't even much of a mystery at this point; it could at least be a breathless race to the finish, like The Bourne Ultimatum. Instead, it's a courtroom drama, minus most of the drama.
One trilogy down, one to go.