A film review by Craig J. Koban January 4, 2023

Rank: #7

GLASS ONION: 

A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY  jjjj

2022, PG-13, 139 mins.

Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc  /  Edward Norton as Miles Bron  /  Janelle MonŠe as Cassandra 'Andi' Brand / Helen Brand  /  Kathryn Hahn as Claire Debella  /  Kate Hudson as Birdie Jay  /  Dave Bautista as Duke Cody  /  Leslie Odom Jr. as Lionel Toussaint  /  Madelyn Cline as Whiskey  /  Jackie Hoffman as Ma

Written and directed by Rian Johnson
 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

There's a moment deep into GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY when writer/director Rian Johnson engages in multiple levels of devilish misdirection.  And it's pretty ingenious in the manner that it radically changes the perspective that audiences have for not only the murder suspects (this is, after all, a murder mystery), but also for the sleuth himself in Benoit Blanc, played once again with unbridled enthusiasm and a mischievous edge by Daniel Craig.  In a telling moment, one innocent victim tells the renowned problem solver that he's the "world's greatest detective" and the only one capable of solving the case, to which he rather modestly and humorously replies, "I'm not Batman."  That's not to say that Blanc thinks lowly of his keen deductive reasoning skills, but rather that he knows when he's thrust into one humdinger of a mystery that may potentially elude even the likes of him.   

After I saw 2019's masterful KNIVES OUT (which made my TEN BEST FILMS of that year) I knew that Johnson had achieved a massive qualitative about-face with his career after his creatively wrong-headed stab at STAR WARS mythology with THE LAST JEDI (that film has worn on me over time, but that's a different tale for a different day).  KNIVES OUT showed great reverence for the Agatha Christie whodunits and classic murder mysteries of yesteryear while giving it all slick and hip modern edge.  I also knew that Craig's Blanc was a superbly original movie character in the making that I wanted to see in more sequels to come.  

It's a decidedly hard task to make an entry in a well worn genre feel both old fashioned and refreshingly new, but Johnson achieved just that, and the massive critical and box office success of KNIVES OUT (grossing hundreds of millions on a scant $40 million budget) proved that a sequel would be inevitable.  In an unexpected move that would have surprised Blanc himself, Netflix purchased the rights to two more Johnson helmed films in this universe for just under half a billion dollars.  Of course, coming off of KNIVES OUT is daunting challenge for GLASS ONION, but Johnson has wisely decided not to make this a direct follow-up entry.  The players, location, and stakes are all vastly different, despite the fact that, yes, a murder has occurred within a confined area and Blanc once again is called upon to solve it.  GLASS ONION is not only a delectably different kind of murder mystery than what's come before, but it's also KNIVES OUT's equal in terms of being razor sharp, insidiously funny, diabolically orchestrated.     

To be fair, the overall setup is a familiar one (Blanc finds himself secluded away with a motley crew of highly untrustworthy types that all have superior motives to commit murder), but what Johnson does with the material is anything but stale.  I'd argue that the basic setup here tantalizingly trumps that in KNIVES OUT.  The film introduces us to Miles Bron (a perfectly cast Edward Norton), who plays a tech billionaire that made his fortune through questionable means (he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer).  Once a year he throws a lavish party for himself and his group of besties (that he calls "The Disruptors"), but during the film's time period the COVID pandemic is raging the world over, leaving intimate get-togethers a thorny proposition at best.  This doesn't stop Miles, though, and he sends out invites to his buddies in what has to be the most elaborate and complex party invitations in movie history (they come in the form of a ridiculously intricate puzzle box that, if solved, with take the solver to the actual invite and party destination).  All of his "Disruptor" friends get one, including (roll call): A career minded politician, Claire (Kathyrn Hahn); a Twitch streamer, Duke (Dave Bautista); a ditzy fashion designer, Birdie (Kate Hudson); a prominent scientist, Lionel (Leslie Odem Jr.); and Miles' former and estranged business partner in Cassandra (Janelle Monae).  They are all told to come to Miles opulent and secluded island resort for some weekend fun. 

 

 

Oh, I almost forgot: Blanc gets an invitation as well, much to his surprise, seeing as he has no close ties to Miles outside of knowing about him in the news and on social media.  He has no idea why he has been granted an invitation, but his insatiably curiosity gets the better of him.  That, and he's tired of isolating at home 24/7 because of the pandemic. 

After all of the players arrive at their destination and go through some COVID screening protocols, Miles comes out to warmly greet them, but the first oddity of the weekend occurs when Miles reveals to Blanc that he did not send him an invite at all, but will graciously allow him to stay.  The initial meet and greet pleasantries give way to Miles revealing to his guests what his next big business venture will entail, which - in one form or another - will affect all of the guests (and negatively if they don't buy-in).  Cassandra is especially hurt by this, seeing as she has accused Miles of royally ripping off her ideas and then cast her aside as he ascended to unimaginable wealth.  It should be noted that the whole party was established as a murder mystery get-together, which Blanc seems acutely skilled for and takes to with fantastic relish (in one of the film's most side-splitting moments, he solves it in seconds upon it starting).  Things do go south, however, when one of the guests (as they always do) actually appears to have been murdered, but under circumstances that don't instantly tip off the killer.  Blanc springs into action as only he can. 

I admired how Johnson's targets for GLASS ONION are so topical.  The previous film dealt with lifestyles of disgustingly rich and wealthy people too and delved into aspects of class warfare between the halves and the have nots, but this time Johnson hones in his sarcastic crosshairs on even bigger fish, like Norton's bumbling himbo billionaire, one who has annoyingly amassed great power, possessions, and individual wealth, but clearly at the expense of others and not because he was a visionary man in the slightest.  Having this film release in the wake of Elon Musk's highly polarizing takeover of Twitter was a convenient godsend for Johnson in terms of framing this character in relatable ways.  Norton is hitting on all cylinders here as Miles too, playing him with a condescendingly false sense of congeniality when - deep down - this man would sell his own mother if it meant him attaining greater control in the world.  I mean, this dude has everything (including Paul McCartney's guitar and - in one hilarious instance - Serena Williams on constant standby on a viewscreen to give tennis lessons to anyone watching).  I appreciated the manner that Johnson infuses a strong allegorical element to his murder mystery.  Someone has been killed on this rich man's compound, and it's easy for everyone to point the finger of blame on him (he has enough money to literally get away with anything, plus he also has cheated his way to the top), but the plot becomes more convoluted than that in the multiple levels of subterfuge that Johnson joyously throws at us. 

The change of overall scenery this time is most welcome as well, and instead of the more tight confines of the mansion in KNIVES OUT Johnson has segued his new tale to Miles' ridiculously decked out Greek Island that's replete with extravagances that most kings wouldn't be able to afford.  I often bemoan when sequels go bigger and broader (which doesn't always necessarily translate to better), but the larger scaled and showier GLASS ONION is a worthwhile expansion, in my mind, and still miraculously done on a modest budget.  Johnson also displays exemplary patience in setting up the story, the character dynamics, and the central premise that brings everyone to the island in question.  As the early weekend partying begins we get some juicy development of all of the deeply self-serving guests that slowly begin to show Blanc - and audiences - that just about any of them just might have been up to murder.  In KNIVES OUT - and whodunit - fashion, death occurs, suspects gather, clues are uncovered, and secrets and lies are unveiled, but attempts to decode the real villain here are perhaps even tougher than Blanc's last big screen assignment.  GLASS ONION is a long film (about as long as its predecessor), and I've been on a bit of a rant lately in reviews when films in general seem to be too bloated and self-indulgent for their own good, but Johnson's sequel earns its running time.   

It's also stupendous how Johnson - as alluded to earlier in my review - starts off his story with a relatively conventional introduction, gets all of the personas gathered, builds to the murder and ensuring mystery to be solved, and then - at the midway point - does a huge 180 degree turn and then flashes back to reveal a whole different vantage point for two key characters in particular that makes you totally re-evaluate everything that has transpired in the first hour just watched.  The fact that Johnson pulls this off with smooth precision and without it coming off as a manufactured cheat is to his esteemed credit.  It also serves the purpose of allowing viewers to re-piece together all of the film's puzzle pieces in a whole different order to create a new image.  There's an INCEPTION level of layering to the scripting here, and one of the endless pleasures of GLASS ONION and KNIVES OUT before it is to bare witness to Craig fully immersing himself in what's slowly, but surely becoming the defining character and performance of his career.  Watching the former 007 actor inhabit this more relaxed and downright comedic character shows just how adept he is playing different heroes with different physicalities. Yeah, his southern droll still might come off as mannered to some, but I was so swept up by Blanc's single-minded purpose to wade through yet another crazy caper using wildly eccentric methods that only he's capable of that nitpicky criticisms go out the door.  Johnson's rich dialogue is a perfect match for Craig's go-for-broke performance.  My favorite moment is when the seemingly dumbfounded Blanc reveals his own kryptonite: the board game CLUE.  You'd think he'd be an unstoppable master at it, but he matter of factly (and somewhat ironically) reveals "I'm very bad at dumb things.  It's my Achilles heel.  Ticking boxes, running around, searching all rooms.  It's just a terrible game."   

While watching Craig chew up scenery here I was constantly reminded of the late Gene Siskel's simple litmus test for what makes a great film: The shared joy expressed by the actors and makers' part to simply entertain.  When that's evident on screen then it's a potent force.  Craig is indeed a wondrous force of nature in GLASS ONION, but his surrounding cast is astoundingly well assembled as well and give great individual performances in their own respective rights.  I liked Kate Hudson's turn as her vapid social media influencer that's so idiotically insensitive that her assistant has to constantly take her phone away ("She's afraid I'll tweet an ethic slur again").  Equally good is Dave Bautista's jacked up Twitch streamer that has a more complicated relationship with Miles than initially revealed.  I'll always concede that he might be the best wrestler turned actor working right now and has been smart enough to take challenging and varied roles while working with grade-A directors like Johnson and recently Denis Villeneuve.  And unlike, say, Dwayne Johnson - who seems to carefully guard his carefully curated brand - Bautsita seems unafraid to play dislikeable and even grotesquely vile characters.  GLASS ONION's secret weapon might be Janelle Monae, who has the trickiest arc of any of the actors, which requires her to find multiple registers to play her role.  Overall, the entire cast here seems to be fully dialed in to their respective parts and are, most importantly, having a ball.  You can feel their shared joy in being a part of this film. 

Nothing in GLASS ONION seems to be half-hearted or lazily phoned in, from Johnson's cheekily subversive scripting to the ensemble cast's deep dive commitment into the madness that engulfs this story to the film's overall art direction and production design (Johnson's longtime cinematographer Steve Yedlin deserves special props for giving GLASS ONION such a rich visual tapestry; this film looks way more expensive that it actually is).  This is one of those ultra rare sequels that doesn't try to re-purpose its antecedent wholesale.  Johnson intuitively knows what audiences loved before in KNIVES OUT and flavors his new installment with arguably as much eclectic personality and whip smart wit, but takes Blanc on a new mission that plays out in a much different fashion and psychologically works on audiences in novel ways.  I could accurately relay that the finale of GLASS ONION and its big reveal might be a bit more anti-climactic than that in KNIVES OUT, but the journey that Johnson takes us all on is undeniably just as deliriously engrossing.  This is arguably one of 2022's most giddily enjoyable pictures on a level of pure entertainment value.  And Craig has most assuredly found a new calling in his post-James Bond career.  

Do I want more Benoit Blanc mysteries?  You betcha.  More, please. 

 

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