Crack detective Benoit Blanc returns to solve another murder among the rich and privileged in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”. This is writer-director Rian Johnson’s standalone sequel to his 2019 smash-hit “Knives Out” and the first of two franchise films he’s making for Netflix after they doled out $469 million for exclusive distribution rights back in March 2021.
Comparisons to the first film are all but guaranteed. Some will be unfair while others are unavoidable. But as whole, “Glass Onion” stands well on its own as a deliciously satisfying romp, driven by Johnson’s signature snarky wit and knack for savory dialogue. It’s crazier and more elaborate which doesn’t always work in its favor. But even when Johnson seems to lose control, he’s always quick to rein things back in. And that’s quite the task considering the film’s many moving parts. It may not match its predecessor stride-for-stride, but there’s a lot to love for fans of crafty whodunnits and sharp-edged comedies.
“Knives Out” won me over for a number of reasons and most trace back to Johnson. The film was fueled by his seamless storytelling, crisp pacing, whip-smart humor, and gaggle of well-defined characters. I really loved the out-of-touch dysfunctional family setting and how Johnson used two dramatically different yet equally terrific outsiders (played by Ana de Armas and LaKeith Stanfield) to expose and ultimately eviscerate their upper-crust entitlement.
And then there was Benoit Blanc himself, a delightfully wry and erudite Hercule Poirot/Sherlock Holmes hybrid, played with such sly and unshakable confidence by Daniel Craig. I loved his quiet and calculated demeanor. I loved how he played his suspects like a fiddle, maintaining an air of maddening mystery, as he applied pressure and waited for them to crack. How could you not love him?
Embracing the popular impulse to go bigger the second time around, Rian Johnson ups the ante in “Glass Onion”. It’s still well crafted, devilishly insightful, and full of the surprise twists you’d expect. It’s also a little zanier, a lot showier, and definitely more far-fetched. And while Craig brandishes the same Southern charm and is genuinely funny (he handles dry humor like an ace), his Blanc doesn’t quite feel the same this time around. He’s is a bit goofier and more exaggerated. Yet it’s impossible to not love the Poirotian gumshoe’s vibrant presence.
With its ‘ode to Agatha Christie’ formula, “Glass Onion” begins by laying out all the essential pieces needed for a good whodunnit. We have a murder, a colorful array of suspects, each with their own reasonable motive, and of course a supersleuth to cut through the lies and root out the killer. It all unfolds on an private island in Greece owned by tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who has planned a weekend long murder-mystery party at his ridiculously posh estate. His four closest friends, his former business partner, and one Benoit Blanc have all received invitations.
After being greeted by a fabulous early cameo (I’ll let you enjoy the discovery), the partygoing guests take a two-hour yacht ride to Miles’ island where they’re met by their an Elon Musk-like host. Among the eclectic bunch is Claire (Kathryn Hahn), the governor of Connecticut who is eyeing a Senate run; Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), a chief scientist at Miles’ Alpha Industries; Birdie (a scene-stealing Kate Hudson), a celebrity fashionista with a penchant for insensitivity; Birdie’s assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick); Duke (Dave Bautista), a beefcake Twitch streamer, and Duke’s saucy younger girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline). Then there’s Andi (Janelle Monáe), who lost everything after Miles squeezed her out of their company. And on the outside is Blanc, who’s still wondering why he’s even there.
Needless to say, Miles’ party is interrupted by an actual murder and Benoit finds himself in the middle of yet another prickly case. Meanwhile Johnson has a field day, indulging in several classic tropes but putting his own contemporary spin on them. And as you would expect, much of the fun revolves around the characters who are both written and performed with personality and panache. Through them Johnson steadily pokes at the filthy rich along with those who bury their integrity and milk their wealthy connections for all they can get.
That gets to one area where “Glass Onion” tops its predecessor – in its handling of its politics. In “Knives Out” you could almost sense Johnson’s pride as his class critique would sometimes veer into heavy-handedness. But in “Glass Onion” it’s more ingrained in its characters and more organic within the story. It’s still obvious, but Johnson seems to trust us more. Some things you can’t miss, such as the oblivious self-absorption that pours out of the conversations. Other indictments are more subtle yet equally damning. Take the story’s pandemic-era setting. As most are confined to their homes, the story’s pampered elites are living it up. It’s reminiscent of certain politicians and celebrities who talked a serious game, only to be caught out enjoying their privilege while so many suffered under lockdowns.
While its title is inspired by a Beatles song from their “White Album”, the “Glass Onion” is more directly a reference to the huge glass chamber in the shape of an onion that sits atop Miles’ gazillion-dollar mansion. Yet if you know the history of the song you can probably see another reason Johnson chose it. Either way, “Glass Onion” the movie proves that “Knives Out” was no fluke, and Rian Johnson has a bonafide franchise on his hands. This one has a few question marks (I’m still not sure about its big ending), but it packs plenty of laughs, it keeps you guessing, it has its own flavor, and it’s more than just a rehash of the previous film. If Johnson can keep that up, we have some good stuff to look forward to.
“Glass Onion” will be in theaters for one week starting November 23rd. It will release globally on Netflix December 23rd.