The larky comic thriller Knives Out, released at the end of 2019, allowed Daniel Craig, as the Southern-fried gumshoe Benoit Blanc, to be goofy in the way that James Bonds often are when they’re playing hooky from the day job. The film begins with the murder of a novelist who refused to allow his books to be adapted. The dead man’s son complains that he even sent Netflix packing – but the director Rian Johnson has not followed that example. After the original picture made more than $310m, the streaming platform slapped down $465m for two sequels.
What distinguished the first movie was its success in mixing contemporary commentary on the US under Trump with an old-fashioned, corkscrew-shaped plot. The new instalment, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, has little of the first one’s catty interplay between its characters, but it couldn’t be any more topical. The story involves a billionaire tech bro and self-described “disruptor”, Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who has more than a whiff of Elon Musk about him, while the climax features environmental catastrophe and attacks on priceless works of art. Conspiracy theorists might wonder if Netflix has manipulated the recent news cycle purely to plug the film.
Bron has invited four fellow disruptors – a Connecticut governor (Kathryn Hahn), a “men’s rights” YouTuber (Dave Bautista), a scientist (Leslie Odom Jr) and a supermodel-turned-entrepreneur (Kate Hudson) – to a murder mystery weekend on his private Greek island in the early months of the Covid pandemic. The victim, Bron announces, will be him, and it’s up to his guests to determine the guilty party, all while admiring his opulent mansion with its robot porters, Matisse in the bathroom, and Mona Lisa on loan from the Louvre.
There are two surprising attendees: Bron’s ex-business partner, Cassandra (Janelle Monáe), stiffed by Bron in a court battle, and Blanc, who received his invitation from an unknown source. This time around, we learn that the debonair detective has a romantic partner back at home: it’s a male voice (Surprise Guest Star alert!) that calls to him as he soaks in the tub in his swish Manhattan apartment. It is here that he complains to friends on Zoom that he needs another big case to sink his teeth into. Not just any friends, mind. These include the late Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim, to whom the film is dedicated as well as indebted; Glass Onion wouldn’t be what it is without Murder, She Wrote or The Last of Sheila, the camp, sun-kissed 1973 whodunnit that Sondheim co-wrote with Anthony Perkins.
It’s all a jolly cake-walk for Craig, who dons a dandy new neckerchief in every other scene and shouts “shitballs!” when injured – very un-Bond. As ever, Blanc’s role is ultimately to facilitate redress for an overlooked or exploited woman. In the first film, that was the murder victim’s devoted nurse, played by Ana de Armas. (She went on to upstage Craig in No Time to Die. How’s that for gratitude?) Now it is Cassandra, swindled out of credit for Bron’s innovations, and spoiling for revenge.
Among the other guests, Hudson is a riot as the dim-bulb ditz prone to face-palm moments, such as dressing as Beyoncé (“It was meant as a tribute”) or comparing herself to Harriet Tubman (“In spirit!”). When she boasts about having “no filter”, Blanc gives her a ticking-off: “It’s a dangerous thing to mistake speaking without thought for speaking the truth.”
The movie contains lots of these on-the-nose digs at internet-era narcissism and moral bankruptcy, as well as bits and bobs of ideas that don’t lead anywhere. It seems odd to borrow the title from the Beatles song, and even to show Bron strumming “Blackbird”, also from the band’s White Album, and not to draw the rest of the soundtrack from the same collection, especially when “Piggies” or “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” would have been so pertinent.
Glass Onion still has the edge over the year’s other whodunnits (including See How They Run and Bodies Bodies Bodies), if only because of the sublime Monáe, whose character reveals complex motives at the halfway point. Then again, a single close-up of her offers intrigue enough. The plot feels cursory in comparison – there is no mystery greater than what she might be thinking.
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is in cinemas now, and on Netflix from 23 December
[See also: Don’t Worry Darling is a derivative let-down]
This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette