Super-sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is sitting in the bath, in just a fez, playing an online mystery game with friends. He loses. He’s been in the bath for a week. It’s May 2020, mid-lockdown, and he’s going out of his mind. "I need a great case," he drawls in that, er, 'colorful' Southern accent. And at that moment a locked hardwood puzzle box arrives...
Rewind. Why not? We’re taking our c(l)ue from Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, a film that further complicates its fiendishly layered murder mystery with multiple flashbacks. So, it’s late 2019 and Rian Johnson’s Agatha Christie-alike mystery Knives Out is a smash, critically and commercially. Along with Kenneth Branagh’s rather more staid Murder On The Orient Express, it will relaunch a genre, with Only Murders In The Building, See How They Run, The Afterparty, Reunion and Retreat to follow. It will also, naturally, launch a franchise, with Netflix paying a whopping $469 million for two sequels.
Glass Onion is the first of those sequels – and like most sequels, it goes bigger, broader, brasher. Knives Out was set in the gloomy mansion of a murdered author, who of course wrote mystery novels to add to the meta fun. Glass Onion takes place on the private island of Elon Musk-alike tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who’s invited his inner circle of friends to stay for a few days to solve his own murder. No, this isn’t some spin on classic noir D.O.A., in which a poisoned man with only days to live sets out to find who killed him. Miles has merely set up a murder-mystery game, written for him by none other than Gillian Flynn; the invitation to each guest resides deep inside the hardwood puzzle boxes he sent out.
We’re back in Blanc’s bath. Soon, he arrives at the island with seven fellow guests: governor of Connecticut Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn); former model turned canceled fashionista Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) and her long-suffering PA, Peg (Jessica Henwick); toxic influencer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), who swims with a very big gun tucked in his very small trunks and is accompanied by girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline); genius scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.); and Miles’ former business partner Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), who’s still smarting from "the trial". Why he invited her – and why she said yes – is a mystery. So, it transpires, is Blanc’s attendance, with Miles swearing he wasn’t on the guest list.
Such is the set-up, but it’s not long before events take a dramatic turn and Blanc finds his services required for real. To say more would be to take away from the ingenious plot – a corkscrew wrapped in a riddle packaged in an enigma, and all tied up with a Gordian knot – but it’s no spoiler to say everyone has a motive and everyone’s a suspect.
Everyone’s also clearly having a riotous time. Hudson relishes Birdie’ tendency to say outrageously un-PC things. Norton’s in a groovy groove as a filthy-rich, neo-hippie jerk who could be the long-lost cousin of Fight Club’s Narrator (a self-proclaimed “disruptor”, Miles says the fun is in escalating the chaos: “You break more things, bigger things; nobody wants you to break the system itself, but that is what true disruption is”). And a clenched Andi sits tight on secrets primed to hatch. As for Craig, well, he - naturally - is having the most fun of all, upping the Southern- gentleman charm and bumbling gratitude and ridiculous outfits that camouflage Blanc’s genius. Columbo is a touchstone, but might there also be a hint of Roger Moore’s florid, tongue-in-cheek Bond, after Craig himself played 007 with a harder edge? One thing’s certain: Craig yelling “Shitballs!” is one of the year’s highlights.
There will certainly be viewers who find Glass Onion too much, who respected the intimacy and intricacy of Knives Out and will wonder why every sequel must be supersized. They’ll have a point. But it’s better to rock up to this beautiful island and enjoy all that’s on offer, from the ridiculous mansion topped by a huge transparent bauble that looks like – you guessed it – a glass onion, to the ludicrous postmodern furnishings, to the twisting, turning, looping, jack-knifing, knowing plot. "So legit" is Miles’ catchphrase, and Johnson’s screenplay is certainly that, as cleverly entertaining as Christie’s tantalizing tales, as well as an exercise in genre deconstruction – one that also finds time to skewer privilege and white male entitlement as it rattles along.
It’s the filmic equivalent of a Penn and Teller magic trick: amaze, show the mechanics, amaze again. So while Miles’ friends are accused of holding on to his "golden titties", a similar charge can’t be aimed at Johnson. Netflix might have written him a Blanc cheque, but he delivers. Roll on the third installment.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is on Netflix from December 23. For more viewing options, check out the best Netflix movies out now.