Jan. 26 2011 12:00 AM

Lisbeth Salander saga builds to a climax in moody Hornets Nest

A great heroine deserves a sensational send-off, and Lisbeth Salander — that girl with the dragon tattoo who played with fire — gets a fairly good one in "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest," the concluding chapter of Stieg Larssons Millennium Trilogy. If director Daniel Alfredsons thriller is not the slam-bang finale we might have hoped for, it has at least a bit more crackle than its slightly poky predecessor, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," and it once again provides the opportunity to see the formidable Noomi Rapace in all her gritty glory. Sullen, suspicious introspection has never seemed more seductive than it does when Rapace is slowly revealing the secrets of Lisbeths badly bruised heart.

Picking up precisely where "Fire" left off, "Nest" begins as a critically wounded Lisbeth is airlifted out of a blood-soaked barn and whisked away to a medical center. But after an attempt on her life, she becomes a rather impatient patient: Even a trip to jail seems like a vacation after the horrors of the hospital.

Before a judge decides Lisbeths future, however, she must finally confront her past. The previous two installments provided hints of what Lisbeths traumatic childhood was like, and "Nest" fills in the blanks. Mutilations, sexual assaults, catatonia, shady psychiatric clinics: Suffice to say the poor woman has plenty of reasons to be emotionally aloof and relentlessly guarded.

Disappointingly, as in "Fire," theres precious little face-to-face interaction between Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the magazine publisher who was her partner (and part-time lover) in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." The contrast between Nyqvists controlled, intellectual approach to danger and Rapaces cobra-like intensity — she always seems to be about a heartbeat away from tearing into somebody — was the compelling key to the start of the series and Larssons decision to set it aside in the second half of the saga was a mistake. While Lisbeths cautious relationship with her sympathetic lawyer (Annika Halin) generates some drama, it lacks the electrifying rapport she and Blomkvist had.

At least "Nest" cooks up a creepy conspiracy tale, as Blomkvist and his editor, Erika Berger (Lena Endre), slowly put together a puzzle in which Lisbeths malicious father, Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), and her brutish half-brother, Ronald Niederman (Micke Spreitz), are key pieces. The film sometimes recalls a pulpier version of the paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, such as director Francis Ford Coppolas "The Conversation" or director Alan J. Pakulas "Klute" and "The Parallax View," in which there seem to be eyes and ears everywhere, and any sense of privacy is nothing but fantasy.

Alfredson keeps the atmosphere tense, even though theres more moodiness than action in "Nest." The movie is never more arresting than it is in the moments when Lisbeth takes center stage. Even in her quietest moments, Rapace sends off sparks.

Theres also a welcome injection of humor along the way: Although her situation seems truly dire, Lisbeth remains furiously feisty and, when its time for her court appearance, she shows up dressed like Cher on Oscar Night. The authorities can try to take away Lisbeths freedom, but theyll have a much tougher time getting rid of her iron-clad attitude.