Fool them once, shame on you; fool them twice, it's a franchise. Three years after blowing the dust off a moribund genre with Knives Out, writer-director Rian Johnson has officially entered IP territory, or at least anthology: Knives is its own free-ranging entity now, borne on the linen-clad shoulders of Daniel Craig's floridly clever detective Benoit Blanc.
His presence is the connective thread in Glass Onion, a busy, shiny not-quite-sequel which arrives today in limited theatrical release before landing on Netflix Dec. 23, bigger and starrier and not a little bit sillier than the original. (As if, by the thermodynamic laws of Hollywood, we would expect any less.) It's the early days of the pandemic but rich-people problems, at least, persist: Where can the one percent court mayhem in the midst of an apocalypse, if not on a private Greek island?
To clarify, the names on the guest list are not nearly as wealthy as their host, a Musk-Bezos master-of-the-universe type named Miles Bron (Edward Norton). He's the tech lord who half-invented the internet; they're the little people who knew him when, including an anxious politician looking to land a Senate seat (Kathryn Hahn); a self-contained scientist (Leslie Odom Jr.); a chaotic model-influencer (Kate Hudson); and a bull-necked YouTube star (Dave Bautista) and his barely-legal girlfriend, naturally named Whiskey (Outer Banks' Madelyn Cline).
Every year, Miles gathers these old friends — they literally have nothing else in common, so just go with it — for a destination weekend; this time it's his private paradise in the Aegean, where they're invited to spend their time lounging and reminiscing and solving a "murder mystery" set to occur at the welcoming dinner. No one is quite sure how Blanc got an invitation to the party, or why Miles' former friend and now bitter rival, Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe), has RSVPed at all, after Miles took credit for her best ideas and cut her out financially. But here they are in this spectacular villa, trading new secrets and salving old wounds, when someone turns up actually dead.
Johnson, who once again also penned the script, has no shortage of ammunition for his rat-a-tat takes on pop-culture ephemera and the navel-gazing delusions of wealth and fame. Norton is the kind of faux-boho billionaire who smugly insists on possessing the best of everything — Serena Williams, Paul McCartney's guitar, and even the late Steven Sondheim appear in well-timed cameos — which means he accepts Blanc's unexpected presence as a gift, one more celebrity bauble to collect. Hudson's Birdie Jay, trailed by her traumatized assistant (Game of Thrones' Jessica Henwick) swans around in caftans, blithely dropping truth bombs ("I say it like I see it") that are more like small xenophobic flash-bangs, and Monáe's cool glare lands like a laser beam.
That Craig walked out of one franchise rooted in violent international intrigue and right into another is an irony for another time. But it does feel as if the actor, natty in his striped playsuit, is almost playing a bizarro-world Bond — trading MI6 and martinis for neatly knotted neckerchiefs and Foghorn Leghorn bon mots — and he seems to revel in it, leaning happily into the pure camp of being Benoit.
Inevitably, an ensemble of this size leaves some people out in the cold, and Hahn and Odom Jr. both feel underused; the big reveal is less overtly witty than the original and certain punchlines, too, will probably reach their sell-by date before the credits fade. But Glass Onion doesn't feel like a movie that's meant, really, to be peeled. It's here strictly to dazzle you with money and murder and famous-people pandemonium, then sharpen its knives for the next installment. Grade: B+