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In the Line of Fire 

Stieg Larsson's formidable heroine returns for a second outing

It's taken U.S. readers a few years to get to know Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of three posthumously released books that were a hit throughout Europe after the first one was released in 2005. Part one of the crime trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is this year's surprise bestseller in the States — a gripping story about a 25-year-old antisocial computer hacker who gets involved with a magazine publisher facing jail time for libel.

The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second story, takes place a year after Dragon Tattoo. (The final movie in the series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, will be released in the U.S. later this year.) Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) — the man Lisbeth saved in the first book and subsequent movie version — is still around. He hires two young writers to investigate a sex-trafficking ring, but as they're wrapping up the story, someone breaks into their apartment and kills them. The creepy guardian who raped a young Lisbeth is also murdered. Lisbeth's fingerprints are found on the gun, and now it's Mikael's turn to rescue her.

Lisbeth (played by Noomi Rapace) is a fetching protagonist: She has multiple piercings, she chain-smokes, she's bisexual ... and then there's that big-ass dragon tattoo running down her back. It helps if you're familiar with Dragon Tattoo, or at least Lisbeth's backstory, since The Girl Who Played With Fire doesn't waste any time introducing you to characters or their relationships. (Just so you know, she set her father on fire when she was younger, a significant incident in her life and in this story.)

The movie jumps around at first, peering into the private lives of Lisbeth, Mikael, and the unfortunate couple that's murdered. But all of them — including some mysterious figures who have ties to Lisbeth's past — eventually center on Lisbeth once the plot kicks in. Even the giant blond dude with some serious martial-arts skills — the guy who busts up apartments and smacks around Lisbeth's girlfriend — is somehow connected to her.

Rapace is stunning in the lead role: defiant, simmering, enigmatic, and kick-ass. In one scene, she Tasers a guy in the nuts without even flinching. Director Daniel Alfredson wisely builds The Girl Who Played With Fire as a suspense film, slowly piling up the tension as the crime unravels. He even makes Lisbeth's tech-savvy prying sexy and exciting. There are similarities between Larsson's Millennium Trilogy and the Bourne movies, starting with buried secrets that are spilled over the course of the series.

But there are lulls here. The first film — and book, for that matter — was better at maintaining momentum. There's too much sitting and talking, as characters hash out plot details. But when Lisbeth gets down to ass-kicking — painting her face like a Juggalo and stringing up one of the men involved in the sex-trade biz — it cuts to the heart of this movie and trilogy. Lisbeth is a heroine for the millennium. And a feisty fireball you really don't want to piss off.

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