The hugely deserved enthusiasm that met Rian Johnson’s crafty, infectious 2019 whodunnit Knives Out was of such frenzied intensity that it didn’t just launch a franchise, it helped relaunch a genre, one that had been mostly dormant for decades. It was the secondary proof, after the flat but more obviously commercial remake of Murder on the Orient Express hit big that crowds were eager to keep playing detective, even when expert puzzler Agatha Christie wasn’t setting the clues. Only Murders in the Building, See How They Run, The Afterparty, the upcoming Reunion and Retreat, all following.
Inevitably, more knives would be dragged out as well, the easy-to-franchise setup of same detective, different location providing Johnson with limitless possibilities, a liberating sense of creative freedom after the shackles of the Star Wars universe. In his absurd and absurdly titled sequel Glass Onion, Daniel Craig’s idiosyncratic sleuth Benoit Blanc heads to a private island with a new set of suspects and a murder that Johnson himself has already insisted critics keep quiet. Unlike the original, it would be a spoiler to even mention whose death is being investigated, an even twistier plot requiring an even more secretive review. What can be shared is that it involves an ostentatious tech mogul, played by Edward Norton, who invites a group of old friends, including Kate Hudson, Janelle Monae, Leslie Odom Jr, Kathryn Hahn and Dave Bautista, to his luxury retreat for the weekend so they can take part in a murder mystery game.
As is standard with sequels, Johnson has opted for bigger and brasher, a generous chunk of the whopping $469m Netflix paid for rights to the follow-ups splashed out on the indulgent hi-tech location. But while the visuals might be shinier (the dreary aesthetic of the original was one of its few lowpoints), the more is more strategy too often has a negative effect on his script. Knives Out was based on an early reversal that flipped the entire film and our expectations of how a whodunnit is done upside down and so he’s charging into the sequel with an awareness that a simple join-the-numbers murder mystery won’t suffice. The opening stretch is packed so tightly with everything from pop culture references to inside jokes to Easter eggs to surprise cameos that it goes from amusing to exhausting a little too fast, the script reflective of a very online sensibility and sense of humour. Too many jokes and gimmicks feel more like MadLibs name-checks – Jared Leto’s hard kombucha, Jeremy Renner’s hot sauce, Serena Williams’ exercise class – and while some do land, there are too many that land with a thud, a reference often confused with a punchline. The first had its far-fetched flights of fancy but it was still somewhat rooted in a recognisable reality. We’re further out at sea this time and while there’s fun to be had playing a game that much wilder and sillier, the excess can feel a little … excessive.
Once an early reveal is out of the way, and Johnson is forced to focus less on window dressing and more on what’s inside, things get vastly more engaging and without spoiling, he finds a smart way to surprise us once again with how the murder is investigated. He’s a master-planner and while the mystery at the heart here isn’t quite as alluring as the first time around (the finale doesn’t end with the same on-your-feet oomph that the first one did), the careful intricacy of his corkboard plotting is mostly without question.
There’s fun to be had watching Craig have fun, even if using him more centrally makes him slightly less effective, and while the cast is markedly lower-wattage this time around, they each have their moments, most notably Kate Hudson, relishing a welcome return to comedy, killing it as a frequently cancelled fashionista with an amusing habit for saying and doing the wrong thing.
Johnson’s more extravagant and often indulgent sequel will likely find those who prefer it to the original, it’s so stuffed with so much that it’ll surely prove more fun to those who appreciate getting more bang for their buck. It’s hard not to have fun when Johnson pulls the strings, I just wish he’d not pulled quite so many and quite so hard.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released in cinemas in November and on Netflix on 23 December