I truly believe Rian Johnson has found the character he could writer and direct exclusively for the remainder of his days and be satsisfied all the way. Johnson’s 2019 feature, Knives Out, introduced Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a master detective with a curious manner and Foghorn Leghorn accent. Clearly inspired by the twisty murder mysteries from the bookcase-filling bibliography of Agatha Christie, the film was a vibrant lark. It adoringly celebrated tried-and-true genre tropes while simultaneously dismantling and rebuilding them to something brilliantly new, precisely the winning strategy that provoked the undying wrath of stunted, nerf-herding fanboys when Johnson presided over Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Like the Poirots and Marples in the trunk of his conceptual family tree, Benoit is utterly necessary and beside the point. He’s a conduit to the story as much as he’s a participant in it, the colorful fount of encyclopedia insight who’s there to reveal what’s up the author’s sleeve as the ending grows near. Johnson had made better films, but none abounded with such evident delight. Once Knives Out proved to be a surprise hit, there was little doubt Johnson would rush back for more.
Benoit Blanc’s return engagement bears the understandably cumbersome title Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. It is bigger and more sprawling in every way, including the setting. Where its predecessor centered on a suspicious death in a rambling manor home, Glass Onion plays out in the ostentatious island compound of Miles Bron (Edward Norton), a business magnate with a media-fueled reputation as a genius innovator. On a regular basis, he calls together his longtime friends, each of them notably successful in their own way, for a getaway weekend. In this instance, his compulsion to seed in pesky puzzles means he plans to include a murder mystery in the mix, which ostensibly inspired the inclusion of Benoit as a ringer to up the stakes of the competition. Of course, all is not as it seems, and Johnson’s own peppy party activity is to build up one plausible explanation after another only to send it careening to the ground to smash into bits like a fragile glass status. Not only is the game is always afoot, but dozens of games are pinging off of each other in ongoing multiball play.
Gifted a bargeload of Netflix money and a creative blank check, Johnson goes for extravagance in every way. The film is packed with cameos and seeded with visual in jokes. I found it all boisterously entertaining, even if I also conclude that the whole ride is a touch less satisfying than it was the first time around. Johnson’s targets are more broadly satirical (the decimation of the Elon Musk myth thanks to his Twitter purchase debacle is practically a publicity stunt to gin up admiration for the accuracy of the Miles Bron character) and the thematic commentary about the rotted moral character of the rich and powerful less sly.
Truly, though, the sequel falters only in comparison to earlier installment. All of Johnson’s usual strengths are fully present: the deft dialogue, the airtight plot construction, the visuals that are inventive without being showy, and well-crafted details that contribute to a fuller understanding of the people on screen. On the last point, Johnson devices an especially amusing way to tip off who the characters are by showing their different approaches to pandemic masking. Johnson also routinely gets splendid work out of his actors, and the exception doesn’t arrive with this film packed with talents. Naming the strongest performance is itself a spoiler, but every one of the main cast members gets at least one moment to sparkle. It easy to imagine fine thespians lining up to get their turn being scrutinized by Benoit. Luckily for them, there’s no sign Johnson will abandon the sleuth any time soon. That endurance is a boon for audiences, too. Glass Onion suggests that Johnson’s indefatigable attention to his creation will keep paying dividends.