Glass Onion ***
Starring: Daniel Craig, Janelle Monáe, Edward Norton, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, Katherine Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr.
Director: Rian Johnson
In 2019, Knives Out became a surprisingly enduring hit with audiences and critics alike. Following on the heels of the successful Poirot reboot, it felt like a reinvigoration of the murder mystery genre, introducing a compelling and quirky new detective in the shape of Benoit Blanc (Craig - James Bondfranchise, Defiance). And with the revelation from producers between movies that this protagonist is actually gay, its first sequel has been awaited with baited breath and clutched pearls in tandem.
Set in May 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, a group of rich and entitled friends are elated to find themselves invited to stay on the private Greek island of their friend Miles Bron (Norton - Fight Club, American History X), a tech billionaire. Each is indebted to him and each has a motive to kill him, except they’re actually invited to solve “his murder” in a contrived party game. However, inexplicably, Blanc has been invited too, without Bron’s knowledge.
Assembled are a group of colourful and deeply flawed characters, including a controversial fashion designer (Hudson - Almost Famous, How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days), a men’s rights streamer (Bautista - Guardians Of The Galaxy franchise, Blade Runner), a risk-loving scientist (Odom Jr. - Hamilton, One Night In Miami), a far-right politician (Hahn - Transparent, Parks And Recreation) and the co-founder of Bron’s business (Monáe - Moonlight, Hidden Figures), all of whom pretend to be a tight-knit group of “disrupters”, but instead are precariously indebted to their benefactor. The latter character, however, soon takes centre stage, being the only character who vocally dislikes Bron.
For a murder mystery, Glass Onion is perplexingly without murder for a good portion of its runtime. In fact, the parody aspect of the murder mystery game feels like the plot of sequel seven or eight in a franchise, not the second in which the conventions are still being assembled. And the film feels weirdly disconnected from its predecessor too. Yes its protagonist is the same, but set on a glistening Mediterranean island in a Bond-villain-esque techno-lair, it looks and feels nothing like the conventionally moneyed subjects of the first film. In fact, this is so full of Easter eggs and cameos from celebrities - Serena Williams, Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim for goodness sake! - that it feels more Inspector Clouseau than Miss Marple. And with a budget considerably larger than before, we can clearly see a director desperate to spend every penny of it.
Its narrative darts back and forth, just as the first instalment’s did, which does give some pleasing dual-angle perspectives on scenes. But as Monáe steps more and more into the central role, it soon loses its focus on a protagonist yet to be cemented in the film canon. In fact, the writer’s attempt to give Blanc a worthy sidekick has overcompensated, making it easy to forget whose story you’re actually watching, with Craig barely on screen for huge swathes of the film. And while Monáe looks luxuriantly clipped and coiffed on screen, her character is the flattest of all the assembled sociopaths and fails to carry the film.
As a revenge movie this would work, but as a murder mystery it splutters back and forth across a clunky and confused narrative. We wanted Benoit Blanc at his best, but instead got a bland B-list amateur solving a different case entirely. And as for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gay moment, with Hugh Grant playing Blanc’s beleaguered house-husband… well the jury’s still out over whether this is woke tokenism that can be easily edited out for an international release, or character investment for future instalments. Although I suspect it might be the former.
UK Release: Out now to watch on VOD on Netflix.