As Sharp as the First One, But in a Go-Big-or-Go-Home Way, and Daniel Craig Once Again Rules

It’s in the nature of cinema that if a hugely popular and beloved movie is grandiose enough, the sequel to it almost has to try to top it in a go-big-or-go-home way. For a long time, each new James Bond adventure was more lavishly scaled, baroque, and stunt-tastic than the last. “The Godfather Part II” was darker and even longer than “The Godfather,” “The Empire Strikes Back” enlarged the awesomeness of “Star Wars,” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” made the first “Terminator” look like a minimalist trinket.

So how does that apply to “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”? Three years ago, Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” was a seamlessly debonair retro whodunit, set in the mansion of a murdered mystery novelist, that not only evoked the edge-of-your-brain storytelling panache of Agatha Christie but expanded the Christie genre into something delectable in its meta cleverness. At a time when comic-book films, action films, and other forms of kinetic fantasy appeared to be in the final stages of killing off everything else, “Knives Out” was a cathartically fun reminder that a movie mode we associate with vintage Hollywood — dialogue of airy density and wit, characters who pop with all-too-human flaws and foibles, a plot that zigs and zags until you’ll follow it anywhere — could still make a righteous stand at the megaplex. Holding it all together was Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, the film’s Southern-gentleman re-imagining of a Hercule Poirot/Sherlock Holmes sleuth, whose wryly deceptive genius made him, for some of us, more super than any superhero.

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Since “Knives Out” was a piece of pop perfection, what can Johnson do for an encore? “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is a thriller bold enough to have a Beatles song in its title, even if the title doesn’t refer to the Beatles (though the song is featured over the closing credits). It describes, rather, the spectacular onion-shaped glass chamber that sits on top of a mansion, situated on an island off the coast of Greece, that belongs to Miles Bron, a scandalously ambitious, famous, and fatuous tech billionaire, played with entertaining jaunty smugness by Ed Norton (think Elon Musk meets…well, Elon Musk). Miles has gathered five of his old chums for a three-day getaway to his private paradise, where the insanely luxe severity of the mansion setting, away from the prying eyes of civilization, ups the ante on the old-fashioned house of the first film. Once the movie gets rolling, much of it takes place in a giant living room jammed with small glass sculptures, postmodern designer furniture, and garishly clashing works of overpriced art. (It’s like the world’s most pretentious man-cave.)

In the opening sequence, each character is summoned by having the same hard-wood box delivered to their home, which contains a series of puzzles they’re meant to solve, each puzzle unlocking the next. That’s a metaphor for how the movie works. Even more than the first “Knives Out,” “Glass Onion” is a thriller wrapped in a deception tucked inside a riddle. It is, of course, a murder mystery with multiple suspects, but it’s one that comes with byways and flashbacks and bells and whistles, not to mention two whodunit homicides for the price of one.

The film is set shortly after the pandemic started, so the invitees are all grateful to be there. (They’re administered a throat spray by Miles’ assistant, played by Ethan Hawke, who for some reason is never seen again.) Each has attained a noteworthy position in the world by becoming some sort of “disruptor.” And they owe their success to Miles, who has bankrolled all of them. But that also gives each a motivation for murder.

Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), the governor of Connecticut, is a former soccer mom who is taking on the political machine. Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is a gun-nut yahoo and influencer who became the first person to win a million followers on Twitch. Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is a former supermodel who has parlayed her scandalous celebrity — she was semi-canceled for a Beyoncé Halloween costume — into overseeing a sweatpants empire. Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) is a scientist who works for Miles. And Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe) is Miles’ former business partner, who lost everything during a hostile split with him but has been invited to the island to make amends, and has agreed to come because…well, why she would do so after she got screwed over so badly is the film’s first mystery.

The second one is what Benoit Blanc is doing there. He claims to have received one of the puzzle-box invitations, but Miles says he never sent it. Yet he doesn’t mind that Blanc is there. Miles, you see, has organized a murder-mystery game for the weekend, in which he is going to be “killed,” and having the world’s greatest detective on site will only make it more fun. Early on, Miles takes Blanc up to the glass onion, and as the two square off, Blanc seems a bit tentative and out of sorts. Is he in over his head? Hardly.

Part of what made “Knives Out” great is that, for all the doubling-back ingenuity of its mystery plot, there was a teasing humanity to it. We saw the clash and bite of ego in each character. In “Glass Onion,” Johnson ups the ante on that as well. Drawing on the glitzy vibe of 1973’s “The Last of Sheila,” the writer-director gives us a set of characters who are walking showboats of acrid ambition. They met Miles years ago, when he was a long-haired nobody at a New York bar called the Glass Onion. But that was then. He’s now a neo-hippie megalomaniac who guzzles Kombucha, owns the guitar on which Paul McCartney wrote “Blackbird,” assigns each guest a room based on their chakra, and talks about “past, present, and future” in the same I-own-it-all breath. As everyone gathers in that gallery hangout space, he reveals his most treasured art object. Let’s just say that it’s…a famous painting. One that sits behind glass protectors that snap shut if anyone even breathes too hard.

In an outrageous scene, Blanc solves the game that Miles is trying to play before it even takes place. That’s the film’s idea of an appetizer. “Glass Onion” expands into something even more extravagant than the first “Knives Out,” which is what you want, even if at moments it can feel like a little more than you want. It would be a crime to reveal too much, but Andi, openly suspicious in her shiny blonde bob, is the most fascinating character, and Janelle Monáe invests her with a moody indignation that singes like a hidden candle. A flashback reveals why she’s really there, and who her secret partner is.

Is “Glass Onion” a better movie than the first “Knives Out”? Not necessarily. But it’s a bigger, showier, even more elaborately multi-faceted shell-game mystery. Craig has figured out how to let his wry performance sneak up on you all over again, and the suspects hover in a tasty zone between toxic and sympathetic. Yet for a movie this chock-full of surprises, there’s something about seeing the killer revealed that feels, perhaps, a touch less gratifying than before. “Glass Onion” is the first of two “Knives Out” sequels. It thoroughly delivers, but next time the knives should cut deeper.

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