The Girl Who Played With Fire (15), Scott Pilgrim VS The World (12a), (3/5,2/5)

Another stab at vice and men
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The Independent Culture

This second instalment of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy wires into the same deep anxieties and naked wish-fulfilment as last year's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

It exposes the brutish sexual humiliations men inflict upon women, and on a public level it takes to task an underlying rottenness in Sweden's body politic – its governors, its judiciary, its businessmen. Part of the story's appeal lies in the fact that an often violent comeuppance is handed out to the perpetrators. The wish-fulfilment goes even deeper in establishing the avenging angel as a woman. That would be Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a cool, flinty, elusive computer hacker who exacted a memorable revenge on her sleazeball "guardian" in the first movie. The latter is embroiled in a further malfeasance that obliges Lisbeth to return to Sweden from exile, which in turn drags up horrible memories of her incendiary relationship with her father. Meanwhile, her fellow sleuth from the last film, the campaigning journo Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), is pursuing a sex-trafficking story that hits a bump when two of his colleagues are murdered; thickening the plot, Lisbeth is marked by the police as the chief suspect in the case.

The difference here is that Lisbeth has chosen to operate without Mikael, either as sidekick or bedfellow, though they play cat-and-mouse with one another via electronic media. The script, adapted by Jonas Frykberg, keeps them apart until virtually the last scene of the film, which shifts the emphasis from a relationship-driven movie to a plot-driven one. It means that Noomi Rapace becomes an even more taciturn and unsmiling presence as she continues her implacable pursuit of "sadistic pigs and rapists", usually unmanning them with a prod from her Taser before eliciting a full confession of their wrongdoing. The only other thing her character does with any relish is smoking. Hardly a scene goes by without her puffing away, and indeed she receives a lover's gift of a cigarette case, as anachronistic nowadays as spats or a monocle. It will be interesting to see if her nicotine habit survives in the imminent US remake of the trilogy. Co-star Nyqvist carries spiritual disappointment in every line of his pouchy, unglamorous face; in another lifetime he could have headed up Ingmar Bergman's repertory of lost souls. The cast is juiced up by a blond man-mountain of a baddie (Micke Spreitz) whose analgesic condition makes him invulnerable even to a Taser in the testicles (ouch).

For all the excellence of the playing, however, you'd be pushed to call this second part anything more than satisfactory. It has the competence of a decent TV cop procedural, with good location work and lugubrious Nordic lighting to render it distinctive – but no more. It intrigues, it unsettles, it occasionally appals; it does not excite. And now that Lisbeth has proven herself almost indestructible – the book's many fans will know of her astonishing Lazarus-like return from the dead – there will be a near-impossible pressure on the third, concluding part (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest) to raise the stakes. Pardon me if I'm not feeling the buzz at the moment.

If there were ever a film guilty of trying too hard, it's Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Ten minutes in and I was already wincing at the archer-than-thou dialogue batted around by a bunch of teenage Toronto hipsters. Oh, they're smart all right, and deadpan in the modern manner ("whatever" is their equivalent of "amen"), but they're so-o-o-o not funny. Michael Cera, he of the high voice and sweet hamster face, is the titular Pilgrim, guitarist, dreamer, and sort-of boyfriend to a 17-year-old naif called Knives (Ellen Wong), whom he awkwardly dumps to pursue incoming New Yorker Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). But winning her heart will involve doing battle with "The League of Evil Exes", viz seven of her former squeezes, all of them equipped with superhuman strength and ninja-fighting skills. So when Scott plays on stage with his three-piece punk band, he'll be suddenly challenged in a video- arcade combat, flying through the air Matrix-style and dissolving his foes into a shower of coins.

The film, adapted by Edgar Wright from the comic books by Bryan Lee O'Malley, scrawls its percussive energies across the screen. "Whump" and "Thonk" flash up in graphics, like they used to do in the old Batman TV series. Even the doorbell goes "Ding Dong". It's a goofy, anarchic one-off that always seems on the verge of collapse. At least I hope it's a one-off. Film critics (including me) spend a lot of time complaining that action movies too often resemble video games. But if romantic comedies – to which genre Scott Pilgrim notionally belongs – start to ape video games too then we're really in trouble. Wright proved himself an able genre-bender in his zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, because he understood the comic potential of humdrum Englishness meeting apocalyptic horror. Here, despite frenetic efforts, the mash-up doesn't work. Cera is fine reprising his gawky misfit schtick from Superbad et al, but the busy CGI whipping around him drains the mood of romance: he's more ninny than ninja, and he doesn't look capable of charming Ramona, let alone fighting off her league of exes. The heroic rock fantasia was done much more charmingly 20 years ago by Bill and Ted in their Excellent Adventure.

There remains the faint possibility that Scott has dreamed the whole thing, but even as a romantic fugue the film is too jumpy and random and unfocused to be seductive. It keeps throwing stuff at the screen – a raid by the "vegan police" – and doesn't seem to care whether it sticks or not; it just zips to the next scene. This is perhaps in keeping with the speed of computer combat nowadays. All the same, I looked forward to the moment it flashed up GAME OVER.